Secrets Behind the ‘Rocket Men’ Tasked With Building Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Missile

In yet another argument over whose “button is bigger,” the escalating tensions between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un continue to serve as a power struggle between the two arguably impulsive leaders.

However, in the wake of their recent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, it’s important to reflect on how North Korea propelled science to the forefront of their political agenda (page 2), as well as who the men leading these initiatives are (page 5).

Some background:

Kim Jong-un with binoculars.

Kim Jong-Un inspects the test-fire of an intercontinental ballistic missile. | STR/AFP/Getty Images.

In yet another headline-breaking attempt to challenge Trump, North Korea fired their highest and longest-flying intercontinental ballistic missile last November. “It went higher, frankly than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said.

While Kim Jong-un and President Trump’s battle of wit (or, at least, words) has been the focal point amidst the “Rocket Man’s” nuclear tests, the group of top scientists and officials behind North Korea’s launches has emerged from the shadows: Here’s what we know about the men behind the missiles (page 5).

They’ve made rapid progress

Kim Jong-Un stand with his military and science team.

They’re done extensive research on missiles. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea has fired numerous missiles this year, stepping up its plan to complete a fully functional ICBM. While analysts are still trying to understand how the nation overcame decades of international sanction, The New York Times says it’s clear the nation has accumulated a significant scientific foundation.

Each of the country’s six nuclear tests has been more powerful than the last. However, reports claim it’s still unclear if they’ve mastered the technology necessary to “keep a nuclear warhead intact as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.”

They’re considered public heroes in North Korea

Kim Jong-Un waves from the inside of a car.

Scientists are given a high status in North Korea. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

Known for his ruthless nature and iron-fist ruling (as well as a history of executing people who do him wrong), it comes as a surprise to many that Kim actually celebrates scientists. “By launching rockets and treating scientists like stars, Kim Jong-un gives his people a sense of progress, said Lee Yung-keol, a defector who runs the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center in Seoul. “It’s not just a military project but also a political stratagem.”

Kim has presented science as an ideal in North Korea, putting his affinity for scientists and engineers on display and emphasizing it as part of the nation’s propaganda. He notably displayed this “passion for science” on a propaganda poster depicting North Korean rockets soaring into space and crashing into the United States Capitol.

They’re so powerful even Kim Jong Un can’t kill them

Kim Jong-un walks with his army of military students.

Kim Jong-Un has respect for these researchers. | KNS/AFP/Getty Images.

Kim is believed to have executed 340 people, including his brother, uncle, and allegedly top military officials like former General Hwang Pyong So. However, it’s thought that these scientists may be safe from Kim’s default ultimate punishment.

Choi Hyun-kyoo, a senior researcher in South Korea who runs NK Tech, a database of North Korean scientific publications, called Kim “someone who understands that trial and error are part of science,” and that “we have never heard of him killing scientists.” Their high status became evident last July at Kim’s annual visit to his grandfather’s mausoleum, where they stood in close proximity to the supreme leader.

They’re called the ‘missile quartet’ and ‘nuclear duo’

Kim Jong Un and his wife celebrate at a ceremony.

They’re given praise for their accomplishments. | STR/Getty Images

The group of four, referred to as the “missile quartet,” consists of an air force commander, an engineer, and two scientists. Jang Chang-ha, the president of the Academy of National Defense Science, and Jong Il-ho, the “official in the field of scientific research,” make up the two scientists appointed to the team.

Kim Jong-sik first appeared next to Kim in February 2016. He has an engineering background and while his appearance coincided with the recent test launches, he didn’t attend last month’s launch. Ri Pyong-chol, a former air force commander, appears t0 be the quartet’s highest-ranking member. He’s also the first deputy director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s munitions industry department, NYT states.

The two men who make up the “nuclear duo,” Ri Hong-sop and Hong Sung-mu, are the director of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute and a former chief engineer at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, respectively.

North Korea has also recruited scientists from the former Soviet Union

Kim Jong-un inspects a weapon.

Kim Jong-Un wants the best on his team. | STR/AFP/Getty Images.

With extreme sanctions from the majority of the Western world in place, questions arose as to how North Korea accessed the information crucial to developing the dangerous weapons. In 1992, a plane carrying 64 rocket scientists from Moscow was stopped before it left for North Korea.

It’s still unclear how many (if any) former Soviet scientists made it to the nation since, however, Lee offered some insight into how they may have gained some insight: offering salaries as high as $10,000 per month.  “We think it’s because they had rocket motors and designs that were basically Russian designs, and they had the expertise of Russian engineers who knew how to solve the problems,” Theodore A. Postol, a professor emeritus of science, technology, and international security at MIT said of the North’s record of success with first-time rocket flights.

However, at the end of the day, it’s still all about Kim

Kim Jong Un waves and smiles while celebrating at a military event.

We know who will take all the credit. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

While Kim awards the scientists with unheard-of honors, in the end, as the NYT stated, he’s the real star of the program. While it’s traditionally inappropriate for a person of a scientists’ caliber to smoke with an elder — of which Kim is the highest — Kim allows the quartet, acknowledging their successes.

No matter how important these scientists become, each must still credit Kim for his accomplishments.

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