Tracing the origin of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program

The godfathers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program were an elderly trio: a nuclear physicist, a military general and a broker with contacts in Pakistan.

The broker is reported to have died in 2014, but together, the three helped lay the groundwork that led to the isolated country’s fourth nuclear test on Wednesday.

Roughly 6,000 people are involved in North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, according to a 2009 report by South Korea’s Science & Technology Policy Institute, and they are an elite corps. Many are given brand new houses and those at the very top are awarded medals listing them as heroes of the state.

“Just like the Manhattan Project, in order to build a nuclear bomb you need eggheads, logistics personnel, and military personnel,” said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership.

“That’s guys like So Sang Guk, Jon Pyong Ho, and O Kuk Ryol.

Even by the standards of secretive North Korea, the three have remained firmly behind the scenes. Some sketchy details, however, have pointed to their role in the isolated state’s nuclear program.

The brain, experts say, is 77-year-old So Sang Guk, a skilled scientist and Ph.D. who rose to become the head of Kim Il Sung University’s Department of Nuclear Physics.

“He was Kim Jong Il’s tutor on nuclear physics and nuclear science,” said Madden.

So was appointed to the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), a secretive body used by Kim Jong Il to wrest power from his father before becoming leader in 1994.

“The reason he had the OGD title was to supervise personnel and give people jobs in the weapons program,” said Madden. “A job there also effectively gave him security clearance so that he could have access to secret documents as he needed them.”

Hwang Jang-yop, a former mentor to the late Kim Jong Il and North Korea’s highest-ranking defector before he died in 2010, once told a Japanese newspaper that Jon had approached him to ask if they could “make a few more nuclear bombs.

“Can we buy some more plutonium from Russia or somewhere?” Hwang quoted Jon as asking him.

“By the autumn of 1996, he said: ‘We’ve solved a big problem. We don’t need plutonium this time. Due to an agreement with Pakistan, we will use uranium.’ ”

A graduate of Moscow State University and a close adviser to Kim Jong Il, Jon worked for more than four decades as a senior figure in the production and development of North Korean arms before retiring from public life in 2011.

Full article: Tracing the origin of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (The Japan Times)

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