Hammer, Brush, & Sickle

By Matthews, Mark; Cain, Geoffrey | ASEE Prism, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Hammer, Brush, & Sickle

Matthews, Mark, Cain, Geoffrey, ASEE Prism

Pulling back the curtain on North Korean engineering.

NORTH KOREA can't feed itself and has a broken-down energy sector, factories operating far below capacity, and a per capita gross domestic product one-twentieth that of its neighbor, South Korea. Strapped for cash, the regime is reputed to traffic in drugs and counterfeit currency. Political wrongdoers are sent to forced-labor camps.

Clearly, the people's paradise envisioned by the late leader Kim Il Sung falls short in economic planning, to say nothing of human rights. Yet there's one field of endeavor in which this opaque, tightly controlled, and heavily militarized nation excels, at least where it coincides with regime priorities. And that's engineering.

While North Korea's nuclear engineers won't win any popularity contests in Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington, their skills impress Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of America's atomic bomb. Now co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Hecker has made six trips to North Korea and visited the main nuclear site at Yongbyon, a closed city, where he got to know nuclear and chemical engineers and materials scientists. He says it's likely North Korea now possesses four to eight primitive nuclear bombs. Although the country has not yet perfected the technology to fashion nuclear missile warheads, it conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and a second, bigger one last May.

Hecker, a metallurgist and professor in Stanford's management science and engineering department, says he's talked to North Korean engineers about "all aspects." These ranged "all the way from taking the ore concentrate to making uranium oxide, to making uranium metal" - casting, shaping, and machining it - "building and operating their reactor, to doing the reprocessing and knowing all the chemistry and chemical engineering of the reprocessing facility." What he found is that "they're very competent and technically well-trained in all the engineering aspects associated with the nuclear fuel cycle."

Such training keeps Western intelligence analysts alert for signs that North Korea is exporting nuclear-weapons technology. They've already seen such signs in Syria, where a 2007 Israeli airstrike destroyed what U.S. officials now say was a construction site for a North Korea-designed nuclear reactor.

Likewise, while North Korean aerospace engineers rattle nerves at the Pentagon, they've successfully re-engineered Soviet missiles and allowed the regime to become one of the world's leading suppliers of missile systems, components, and technology. Customers have included Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan. Besides short- and mediumrange missiles, North Korea is developing a long-range Taepo-Dong 2 model that, once perfected, could strike the United States. Using ballistic missile technology, North Korea tried to launch a satellite into orbit in April 2009, but in its third stage, after passing over Japan, the three-stage rocket crashed into the Pacific.

Less well-known beyond the Korean peninsula is the North's formidable tunnel-building skill. Since the mid-1970s, four North Korean tunnels have been discovered beneath the demilitarized zone that first separated the two Koreas after their war ended in 1953. Each could have sent a regiment into South Korea within an hour. Many North Korean military facilities are suspected of being maintained in underground bunkers, and, according to the Times of London, one tunnel, drilfed into a mountain, is big enough to serve as a runway for fighter jets. Lately, according to Bangkok-based journalist Bertil Lintner, the North has been exporting its tunnel expertise to win allies across Asia. Last June, he published photos purportedly showing North Korean engineers leaving a tunnel complex built for Burmese officials.

Though slowed by a lack of up-to-date equipment, North Korea's mining industry is also extensive, extracting everything from coal and iron to magnesite, a source of magnesium, gold, and - key to the nuclear program - uranium.

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