How a homemade tool helped N Korea’s missile programme

SEOUL: In 2009, a pop video from North Korea celebrated a new national hero — one that outside experts would later realise was at the heart of the secretive state’s banned nuclear and missile programmes.
That hero, widely available in factories across the world, was the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine.
Big, grey and boxy, CNC machines use pre-programmed guides to produce intricate parts for everything from automobiles and mobile phones to furniture and clothes.
They offer accuracy that human machine tool operators are unable to achieve.
In North Korea, thanks to a combination of homemade technology and reverse engineering, the machines now play a critical role in the weapons programmes.
They allow Kim Jong Un to build nuclear bombs and missiles without relying as heavily on outside technical aid or imports.
Nuclear weapons experts say this has helped him accelerate missile and nuclear testing despite international sanctions on the transfer of sensitive equipment.
“North Korea’s centrifuges and new missiles all depend on components made with CNC machine tools,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies at Monterey, California.
“(They) are the essential underlying technology for producing missiles and nuclear weapons,” said Lewis.
Since 1996, CNC machines have been included in the Wassenaar Arrangement — an international arms control regime aimed at stopping the proliferation of equipment with both civilian and military uses.
North Korea is not a signatory.
The country’s celebrations of its CNC technology have been fulsome.
Hundreds of dancers in luminous orange and green performed the CNC pop song, titled “Break through the cutting edge,” at a Korean Workers’ Party celebration in 2010.
In 2012, the year the South Korean hit “Gangnam Style” was released, the North’s CNC title was on karaoke machines nationwide, according to Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based company that trains North Koreans in business skills.
The official video for the song opens with a long-range North Korean rocket soaring into a blue sky.
North Korea likely started to develop its own CNC machines in the early 1990s as part of a drive to build sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons, nuclear experts say.
It probably learned how to make them by taking apart machines it had imported from the Soviet Union.
Its first homemade CNC machine was introduced in 1995.
Former leader Kim Jong Il gave the machine the “Ryonha” brand, according to a 2009 article in the country’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.
That was the first time state media mentioned the technology.
By 2009, the machines had become a mainstay of North Korean propaganda, as Pyongyang launched a nationwide campaign to boost domestic industry. — Reuters