The Inside Story on North Korean Rocket Development

Wednesday 12th December, 2012

North Korea rocket

This morning, the DPRK announced its successful launch of the satellite ‘Gwangmyongsong – 3’ through the ‘Unha – 3’ rocket. This is the second launch attempt made by North Korea this year. The first attempt in April was a failure and only flew for 90 seconds. In this post, former DPRK official Jang Jin-sung will present to you an insider’s glimpse into the history of North Korean rocket development.


The story of North Korean rocket development

The North Korean rocket story begins with Seo Sang-guk. When I defected from North Korea in 2004, Sang-guk was still Chair of Kim Il-sung University’s Department of Physics, as well as Kim Jong-il’s personal advisor in military technology. In addition, he is a Fellow of the DPRK Academy of Sciences and is the recipient of a state medal for his services in the field. Seo Sang-guk’s youngest daughter, Seo Eun-hui, was my peer when we attended Pyongyang Arts School. We both studied music; she was a  mezzo-soprano studying for a degree in vocal performance.

Eun-hui was usually a quiet girl, but she became very animated whenever she talked about her father. She was very proud of him.

Sang-guk had studied in the USSR. After his initial studies, he was assigned to teach physics at Kim Il-sung University while preparing for his doctoral thesis. But in 1975, he was suddenly banished to the countryside. This was at a time when Kim Jong-il was consolidating his power, seizing the Party that had been under the control of his father, Kim Il-sung. Those who were educated were scrutinised for their ideological loyalties. Revisionist tendencies, in particular, were being stamped out.

Sang-guk’s crime was that he had kept secret the details of a relationship he had with the Soviet authorities while studying there. It came out in the following way. During a private occasion with friends, he boasted that a Soviet representative had asked him to remain in the USSR. They had offered him a well-paid research post. Another slip happened during a debate on the political history of the USSR. Referring to Khrushchev’s labeling of Stalin as a autocrat, Sang-guk had said’ “The Russians are clearly extraordinary in the revolutionary commitment.” Snitched on by his peers, he was sent to a labour camp for his ‘revisionist crimes’.

In the early 80s, on Kim Il-sung’s visit to the Soviet Union, he made a personal request to a renowned Soviet physicist. He asked for his co-operation in the sphere of rocket development. The man, surprised, replied, “Why do you say you lack talent? You snatched Seo Sank-guk away from us!” When Kim Il-sung returned to Pyongyang, he immediately ordered for Seo Sang-guk to be found and summoned to him.

In this way, Seo Sank-guk went straight from being a farm labourer to lecturing at Kim Il-sung University. The first rocket whose development he oversaw was the tactical long-range trajectory missile. On seeing his achievement, Kim Jong-il in 1986 made Seo Sank-guk Chair of the Kim Il-sung University Department of Physics, as well as appointing him as personal adviser in the sphere of military technology. As part of the belief that competition was necessary for continuous advancement in the sciences, Kim Jong-il put the Second Economic Steering Committee and Kim Il-sung University’s physics department head to head in a race to make advances in rocket technology.

(to be continued: why the success of today’s launch is not necessarily a step forward in technological terms)

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