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Behind North Korea's Nuclear Advance: Scientists Who Bring Technology Home

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/9/2017 Jeremy Page, Alastair Gale
© Jeremy Page

HARBIN, China—When North Korea tested what it said was a domestically produced hydrogen bomb on Sunday—a week after launching its 18th ballistic missile of the year—it was a reminder of a conundrum at the heart of the country’s nuclear program. How has it advanced so rapidly despite concerted international efforts to keep weapons-related technology out of its hands?

The answer may lie in expertise brought home by North Korean scientists who studied abroad, especially in China, sometimes in apparent violation of 2016 United Nations sanctions that ban teaching North Koreans certain subjects.

Hundreds of North Korean scientists have studied outside the country in recent years, according to a Wall Street Journal review of official figures, academic papers and data from universities, many in areas the U.N. says could help Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

Early in its six-decade quest for a nuclear arsenal, North Korea relied on technology and experts from the Soviet Union, then later from Iran and Pakistan. That it can now draw on its own scientists indicates it will only become harder to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“We should be very concerned about North Korean researchers abroad, particularly in China,” said Katsuhisa Furukawa, a member from 2011-2016 of the U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions enforcement on North Korea.

Among those scientists is Kim Kyong Sol, who was still at China’s elite Harbin Institute of Technology more than a year after the U.N. introduced its sanctions, doing a Ph.D. in mechatronics—a blend of mechanical engineering, electronics and programming—according to university staff. In March this year, he published a paper in China co-written by a senior engineer in Beijing’s military-run space program.

After reviewing Mr. Kim’s paper at the Journal’s request, Mr. Furukawa concluded it fell into a category banned by U.N. sanctions.

Foreign-educated North Koreans’ work in multiple disciplines, said Mr. Furukawa, now an independent analyst, has “surely contributed to the accumulation of scientific know-how and information relevant to its weapons program.”

North Korea’s technological advances go beyond nuclear science. Any research or contacts abroad that could help North Korea launch objects into space is of concern to the U.S. as it tries to stop Pyongyang from perfecting ways to attack America or its allies.

Pyongyang has launched Earth-observation satellites, which can be used for reconnaissance and targeting. It has also test-fired missiles from a submarine and said it could conduct an electromagnetic-pulse attack, designed to cripple electric grids by detonating a nuclear device on a satellite.

The technology Mr. Kim studied, called MR damping, can be used to stabilize spacecraft and absorb shock in missile-launch systems, including in submarines, as well as to reduce vibration in cars, buildings and helicopters, U.S. experts in the field said.

Mr. Kim returned home in June, university staff said. He didn’t respond to emails. China’s foreign ministry said Beijing was “strictly implementing” all U.N. resolutions on North Korea. It didn’t respond to questions about Mr. Kim, nor did Harbin Institute of Technology.

The concern among U.S. officials is that Pyongyang exploited a lack of strict education sanctions before the 2016 U.N. ban to dispatch scientists and bring back “dual use” expertise—with civilian and military applications—and could continue to benefit from any lax enforcement of the ban.

Some of those officials said they fear that even with strict sanctions enforcement, Pyongyang may already have sufficient indigenous know-how for its nuclear goals. There is evidence North Korea produces its own rocket engines, the Journal reported in August, citing a U.S. intelligence official, contradicting a recent think-tank report suggesting its engines are from Ukraine or Russia.

Kim Jong Un made a point of bragging that his claimed hydrogen bomb was indigenous: “All components of the H-bomb were homemade and all the processes ranging from the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials to precision processing of components and their assembling,” the nation’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted him as saying.

Following North Korea’s second nuclear-bomb test in 2009, the U.N. in a package of sanctions in response called on countries to “prevent specialized teaching or training” within their territories or by their nationals that could help Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.

The U.N. imposed the 2016 ban on teaching specific subjects in response to a fourth nuclear test in January of that year and broadened it to encompass disciplines such as advanced engineering and materials science after another test last September.

In a report this February, U.N. experts said they found several North Koreans studying physics in Italy and four studying material science, engineering and electronic communications in Romania last year after the ban. The report said all were redirected to permitted subjects. The institutions didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In 2016, U.N. experts said two North Koreans were training that year before the ban at an Indian space technology center where 32 others had attended since 1996, including one who recently headed Pyongyang’s satellite control center. The Indian center said it no longer accepts North Koreans.

China in recent years has accounted for the bulk of North Korean scientists abroad, the Journal found in a review of official figures and data from universities in countries where the most North Koreans typically have studied. In China, 1,086 North Korean postgraduates studied in 2015, the last year for which official data are available, according to a Chinese Ministry of Education publication, up from 354 in 2009. The publication doesn’t show which schools they attended or what they studied.

The Education Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

China accounted for 60% of research papers by North Koreans in foreign journals from 2011 through 2016, mostly in physics, engineering, math, metallurgy and materials science, a study of academic databases by researchers from South Korea’s Hallym University found.

Papers published by North Koreans in China since the 2016 U.N. sanctions span civilian fields such as medicine and mining but also include several in fields now prohibited, including metallic foams that protect against radiation.

Sending more scientists abroad, and giving them perks at home, has been central to Kim Jong Un’s policy of byungjin, or parallel progress, to develop nuclear weapons and the economy—a policy he introduced publicly after taking power on his father’s 2011 death.

North Korea has said it needs nuclear weapons to prevent an attack by the U.S. It began its nuclear-arms program with Soviet backing in the 1950s and for years had small exchanges of scientists with the Eastern Bloc. After the Cold War’s end, Pyongyang traded for nuclear and missile expertise, mainly with Iran and Pakistan, according to historians, while continuing to send a few scientists abroad.

Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, U.S. and U.N. sanctions have focused on curbing the flow of money and dual-use materials to Pyongyang’s weapons programs. The regime has compensated by trying to develop more indigenous weapons know-how, experts on North Korea said.

Kim Jong Un’s byungjin policy has helped Pyongyang develop a wide spectrum of technical expertise—including metallurgists to make strong, lightweight alloys for rockets, mathematicians to help guide missiles and satellite engineers to improve targeting and reconnaissance, said experts and Western government officials.

It isn’t clear how the mechatronics scientist, Mr. Kim, planned to use his expertise in MR damping. “Could it be turned into military applications? Possibly,” said Mehdi Ahmadian, a Virginia Tech professor who said he had done similar research on MR damping in space structures, which could include satellites, antennae or mirrors.

Footnotes in the paper Mr. Kim published show funding came from a project led by his Chinese supervisor, Chen Zhaobo, on hypersonic vehicles, which can fly at more than 3,800 mph and are being developed by China, Russia and the U.S. to deliver nuclear or conventional weapons.

Prof. Chen said that, after four years in Harbin on a Chinese government scholarship, Mr. Kim returned home because of the sanctions shortly before defending his Ph.D. thesis. “I tried to comfort him a little,” Prof. Chen said. “He knew that after going back, he’d feel disappointed. He didn’t express it, but you could still tell.”

He said Mr. Kim didn’t have access to secret Chinese defense technology but said his former student’s work, with further development, had potential civilian and military uses, including in space. He and two other professors who worked with Mr. Kim said they learned of the U.N. sanctions from students and colleagues only around May or June of this year.

Mr. Kim arrived as part of a cooperative agreement of the type several Chinese universities have signed since 2010 with North Korean universities, including two that U.N. experts have reported provide personnel and technology for Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program. They are Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology, Mr. Kim’s alma mater.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and expert in nuclear proliferation, said it is common among nations seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction to seek knowledge abroad, including by sending scientists to take courses and attend conferences. China’s engineering schools and training programs, he said, offer “opportunities to mingle with people who may have sensitive information, such as Chinese who have been in military programs.”

The Harbin university, known as HIT, is one of China’s top engineering schools and conducts classified defense and space-related research, as well as regular civilian studies. The school has cooperation agreements with Kim Chaek and Kim Il Sung universities, which in 2013 sent the first group of 12 doctoral and postdoctoral students to enroll there, according to the HIT website. That number increased to 28 by 2015.

Mr. Kim was in the first group. Born in 1975, he studied mechanical engineering in North Korea before enrolling in HIT’s School of Mechatronic Engineering, according to his research papers. The school boasts on its website it has trained personnel for China’s manned space program and has facilities for defense research, including on ultraprecision machining.

Mr. Kim and the other North Koreans at HIT kept low profiles, sharing two-bedroom apartments and rarely socializing, university staff said. The North Koreans all had Chinese government scholarships, they said, which provided free housing and tuition and monthly stipends of about 3,000 yuan ($450).

“They were easy to recognize from their clothes and their looks,” said one Chinese postgraduate student at HIT. They appeared to be supervised by one individual among them, other students said.

Upon arrival, Mr. Kim “looked at the direction of my research and thought it was quite interesting,” said Prof. Chen, a vibration-control expert who has worked on defense projects. He said he now focuses on civilian research because “military project management is very strict and not conducive to academic exchanges.”

In 2007, Prof. Chen co-wrote a paper on designing composite laminates to control vibration in spacecraft. From 2012-2015, he ran a project on vibration control for hypersonic vehicles, according to his profile and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

That project sponsored Mr. Kim’s paper in March, whose co-authors included Wang Xiaoyu from the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering, which has worked on Chinese satellites and China’s manned spacecraft and lunar rover. Ms. Wang declined to comment.

Prof. Chen said Mr. Kim’s work was more directly related to helicopters but could be used in multiple fields. He and Mr. Kim applied for a patent in February, saying their technology has applications in areas including aerospace, according to China’s patent registry.

Norman Wereley, a University of Maryland aerospace-engineering professor and MR-damping expert, said Mr. Kim’s research was fairly basic but would allow him to do more sophisticated work at home. “He could think about, ‘well, hey if I want to do vibration control in a missile system, I have a much better understanding of how to do that,’ ” he said. “I don’t think he’s getting this education for scholarly reasons.”

At least 11 other North Korean Ph.D. students left HIT in June, while others switched to subjects such as management studies that aren’t banned by the U.N., university staff said.

Some may have taken home a little extra know-how. North Koreans are suspected of violating library regulations by downloading tens of thousands of papers from subscription-based databases in recent months at at least two Chinese schools, including HIT, according to university staff and students.

On May 16, 57,000 papers were downloaded by nine foreign students from the mechatronics and other faculties at HIT, according to a notice from its library. Staff and students said the culprits were North Korean.


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