How a homemade tool helped North Korea’s missile program

north korea cnc
Koreans perform during mass games in Pyongyang, August

Choson Exchange via

SEOUL, (Reuters) – In 2009, a pop video from North Korea
celebrated a new national hero – one that outside experts would
later realize was at the heart of the secretive state’s banned
nuclear and missile programs.

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 programs. 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.

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The official video for the song opens with a long-range North
Korean rocket soaring into a blue sky.

kim jong un cnc
Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspects the General Machine Plant in

KCNA via

Cutting edge

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

By 2009, the machines had become a mainstay of North Korean
propaganda, as Pyongyang launched a nationwide campaign to boost
domestic industry. Sanctions were mounting after its second
nuclear test and a long-range missile launch that year.

At the time, arms control experts raised concerns about a visit
by former leader Kim Jong Il to a North Korean factory where
homemade CNC machines appeared to be producing aluminum tubes.
These could be used for nuclear centrifuges.

“By around 2010, it seemed they were capable of manufacturing
various types of CNC machines,” said Kim Heung-gwang, a North
Korean defector who taught at Pyongyang’s Hamhung Computer
Technology University before defecting to South Korea.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint
Venture Corporation, which produced the machines, was blacklisted
by the U.N. Security Council for supporting the weapons programs.

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And it was only in August this year that U.S. intelligence
officials told Reuters North Korea likely has the ability to
produce its own missile engines themselves.

Now, Kim Heung-gwang estimates, North Korea has about 15,000 CNC
machines. He bases this on North Korean state media reports and
photos as well as interviews with more than a dozen defectors who
were scientists, professors or factory workers.

North Korea
of North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security, August 10,


Mass production

Pyongyang hailed the homemade machines as a triumph for its
governing ideology of “Juche”, which champions self-sufficiency.
But that wasn’t strictly true.

In August 2016, state media released photos of Kim Jong Un
visiting a factory using CNC machines with the logo of Swiss
engineering firm ABB ABB.UL, one of the leading players in the
global CNC machine market. It’s not clear when or how the machine
reached North Korea.

ABB said the firm respects all applicable trade sanctions against
North Korea, and undertakes not to deliver ABB equipment to the
country. “That said, we cannot rule out that some of our
equipment may have been resold to DPR of Korea without our
knowledge or permission,” the company said in response to a
Reuters inquiry, using North Korea’s official title.

North Korea missile
Koreans watch a news report showing North Korea’s Hwasong-12
intermediate-range ballistic missile launch, Pyongyang station in
Pyongyang, North Korea.


A United Nations panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea said
in a report this year that Tengzhou Keyongda CNC Machine Tools Co
of China had been a supplier of Pyongyang’s new CNC machines. A
sales representative for Tengzhou Keyongda told Reuters the
company stopped selling CNC machines to North Korea four years
ago, and no longer maintains trade relations with the country.

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Despite sanctions, CNC machines are commonplace across North
Korean manufacturing and can be brought in through China and
Russia, said Lee Choon-geun, a senior fellow at the Science and
Technology Policy Institute in South Korea

The biggest loophole has been that while some CNC machines are
banned because they can have both military and civilian
functions, most serve civilian industry. “Given their dual-use
capability, you could even import the machines for other
purposes, take them to pieces and use them however you want,”
said Lee.

The CNC song highlights this in its opening line: “Whatever it
is, once we put our mind to it, there’s a program to make it,” it

(By James Pearson and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting
by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Lusha
Zhang in Beijing; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Lincoln Feast and Sara