WASHINGTON - The top managers of North Korea's clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile program have been methodically promoted and now dominate the inner circle of Kim Jong-eun's new government, confidential foreign government documents and official media reports from Pyongyang show.
The shadowy group of power brokers in the world's most secretive nation emerged in the first military promotions prominently unveiled during recent high-profile ceremonies as the official mourning period for the death of former dictator Kim Jong-il concluded last week.
These same senior officials are known to be behind Pyongyang's missile test launch - scheduled for the middle of April - which has rattled regional nerves and sabotaged a short-lived agreement withWashington designed to slow North Korea's steady march towards a nuclear weaponized state. The United Nations and United States have charged the "earth observation satellite" launch is a thinly disguised cover for testing capabilities for a nuclear armed long-range ballistic missile.
At least 10 senior North Korean officials, now prominent at the core of power behind 29-year-old hereditary successor Kim Jong-eun, have been named by several foreign intelligence services as in charge of Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile development and export program, including enrichment of uranium to weapons grade strength.
They have also been implicated in selling nuclear and missile technology to Iran and Syria, dispatching special operation teams to attack South Korea and assassinate political opponents, coordinating an international criminal network involved in drug trafficking, counterfeit money laundering, and establishing front companies and banks to raise more than a billion US dollars per year to bankroll the privileged lifestyles of the regime's elite.
The 10 are among North Korean officials and government agencies named by at least 31 governments as part of a network that has imported, sold and developed components and technology for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They have had their assets frozen, been banned from travel outside of North Korea and forbidden from engaging in business with the countries' nationals or companies, according to official documents.
In the first leadership reshuffle following Kim Jong-il's death and in one of his first public acts as the Korean People's Army Supreme Commander, Kim Jong-eun promoted four key officials to the rank of general at ceremonies marking his deceased father's 70th birthday on February 15.
Pak To-chun, Ju Kyu-chang and Paek Se-bong, previously seen only in civilian dress, were never known to have military rank before being made senior generals. Pyongyang's top spy, Kim Yong-chol, was also recently promoted to four-star general rank. In January, another key powerbroker, Kim Jong-eun's uncle Jang Song-thaek, who appeared for the first time in military uniform at the December funeral ceremonies for Kim Jong-il, was appointed to the rank of four-star general.
All five men are named by the United Nations, the US, the European Union (EU) and other government documents as key managers of Pyongyang's illicit ballistic and nuclear development and export programs.
Ju Kyu-chang has been at the center of Pyongyang's clandestine nuclear and missile development policies for more than two decades. He "oversees the development of North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs", according to a December 19, 2011 EU document listing North Korean officials designated on its sanction list.
Ju Kyu-chang is also director of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) Machine-Building Industry Department, former head of the KWP Second Economic Committee and past head of the National Academy of Natural Sciences. All three government agencies are named by US, UN, EU and other governments as deeply involved in covert nuclear and ballistic missile production, research and export.
According to a May 2010 confidential report to the United Nations Security Council, "Ju served as the overall supervisor for North Korea's missile development, including oversight of the April 5, 2009 Taepo Dong-2 (TD-2) missile launch and the failed July 2006 TD-2 launch."
Those two missile launches were the predecessors to the upcoming launch this month of an "earth observation satellite". Both ballistic missile launches immediately preceded Pyongyang's two underground nuclear explosions.
Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said Ju Kyu-chang has "technical expertise regarding the SLV [space launch vehicle] and satellite programs and the nuclear weapons program". In its June 2009 report "North Korea's nuclear and missile programs", ICG said Ju Kyu-chang "is believed to be in charge of an independent entity with custody of North Korea's nuclear bombs" and "was in charge of the August 1998 attempted satellite launch and the 2009 launch".
"I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the US Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War II," said Larry Niksch, a senior associate with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Asian affairs specialist for 43 years with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. "Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons," he said in an e-mail this week.
Niksch wrote that Pyongyang reacted to international sanctions by "fashioning an alternative based on illicit programs: counterfeiting of US currency and products, narcotics smuggling, and selling missiles and other weapons to other 'rogue' nations like Syria, Pakistan, and Iran, and terrorist groups like Hezbollah ... I estimate that North Korean earnings from various forms of collaboration with Iran earns Pyongyang upwards of $2 billion annually. Kim Jong-il distributed much of these earnings to his military and communist elite to keep them satisfied and loyal."
Paek Se-bong is chairman of the government's Second Economic Committee (SEC). A classified May 2010 UN "Report to the Security Council from the Panel of Experts" said, "It is broadly believed that the Second Economic Committee of the National Defense Commission plays the largest and most prominent role in nuclear, other WMD and missile-related development programs as well as in arranging and conducting arms-related exports."
According to 2010 US government documents "The US has reason to believe ... [the Second Economic Committee] has been used for North Korea-Iran proliferation-related transactions." A 2009 UN report to the Security Council said the SEC "is a national-level organization responsible for research and development of North Korea's advanced weapons systems, including missiles and probably nuclear weapons". The same UN report said, "Paek is the chief operating officer of the DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea's] military industry, the country's largest employer and economic consumer."
Paek Se-bong personifies the mysterious grouping of figures in charge of North Korea's illicit weapons program. Very little biographical data exists on Paek Se-bong, who emerged from obscurity in 2003 when he was appointed to head the SEC and made a member of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the supreme ruling body of the DPRK.
After 2003, Paek Se-bong did not appear for eight years in official North Korean media until April 9, 2009 - four days after the highly publicized launch of the last North Korean "satellite". He was at that time reappointed publicly to his position as head of the SEC and a member of the NDC.
That long-range rocket test scuttled ongoing talks over its nuclear program and was followed weeks later by an underground explosion testing a nuclear bomb, which resulted in harsh UN sanctions. It was shortly thereafter that Paek Se-bong's name was placed on international sanction lists.
His name translates to the "Three peaks of Mt Paektu", a term used in official propaganda to refer to Kim Jong-il and his parents. (It is purported to be the mythical birthplace of Kim Jong-il, but he is known to have been born in a village in Siberia where his parents were in exile during World War II.)
Pak To-chun was placed under international sanction on December 19, 2011, the same day Kim Jong-il's death was announced. According to the EU, "He is in charge of the arms industry. It is reported that he commands the office for nuclear energy. This institution is decisive for [North Korea's] nuclear and rocket launcher program."
An image of a national report meeting held on February 15, 2012, highlighted are Pak To-chun (2nd row, left), Ju Kyu-chang (2nd row, 2nd left) and Kim Yong-chol (3rd row, right), all of whom were given military promotions on the occasion of Kim Jong-il's recent birthday celebration. (Photo: KBS screen grab)
Pak To-chun, also a member of the powerful NDC, is director of the Military Arms Production Department. According to the May 2010 UN report to the Security Council: "The Military Arms Production Department of the Korea Workers' Party oversees the matters related to the Yongbyon nuclear plant and its nuclear weapons programs."
He succeeded Jon Pyong-ho as head of North Korea's military industries in 2010. Jon Pyong-ho was the primary manager since the 1980s of North Korea's clandestine international network tasked with covertly acquiring components and technology to build a nuclear bomb. He was in charge of trading ballistic missile and nuclear technology with Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan network to build Pyongyang's nuclear and other weapons arsenal.
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AN ATOL INVESTIGATION
All of Kim Jong-eun's men
By Nate Thayer
In 2008, a secret delegation of Myanmar military generals traveled to North Korea on a weapons and technology purchasing trip. A leaked detailed report, complete with pictures, showed Jon Pyong-ho hosting Myanmar military officials, including on a tour of a missile factory.
Jon Pyong-ho continues to serve on the powerful NDC and is named on international sanction lists for running a worldwide network trafficking in nuclear material with Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Syria.
"[He] is in charge of nuclear weapons development," according to a 2009 UN report issued after Pyongyang detonated a second underground nuclear explosion. According to a December 21, 2011 EU report ordering new sanctions, the Machine Building
Industries Department he headed is "responsible for overseeing activities of North Korea's military industries" including "the development of North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs".
In April 2009, Jon Pyong-ho was one of only two officials named as accompanying Kim Jong-il to witness the purported peaceful "space launch" that scuttled earlier bilateral agreements to halt ballistic and nuclear testing, according to photographs and statements from the official Korean Central News Agency archives. The other was Ju Kyu Chang, who was promoted to four-star general during this year's February ceremonies for the deceased Kim Jong-il. Jon Pyong-ho was given special prominence at the recent mourning period closing ceremonies on 25 March.
Kim Yong-chol, a former bodyguard turned head of North Korea's spy agency, also received his fourth star during the recent Kim Jong-il birthday celebrations. Kim heads the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). Both he and the RGB are named in UN, US, EU and other international sanctions for their involvement in banned sales of sophisticated weapons systems, including to Iran and Syria, and have been implicated in launching recent military attacks on South Korea.
Kim Yong-chol and the RGB "specializes in the production of maritime military craft and armaments, such as submarines, military boats and missile systems, and has exported torpedoes and technical assistance to Iranian defense-related firms", according to December 2011 United Kingdom and EU sanctions documents.
The same documents name the RGB as "responsible for approximately half of the arms and related material exported by North Korea" and name RGB front companies that in 2007 and 2008 "facilitated transactions involving ... designated Iranian financial institutions, including Bank Melli and Bank Sepah ... for the benefit of North Korea's Reconnaissance General Bureau's (RGB) weapons program."
Kim Yong-chol was first implicated by intelligence agencies in 2010. In August 2010, US President Barack Obama cited the "unprovoked attack that resulted in the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy ship Cheonan and the deaths of 46 sailors in March 2010" when issuing Executive Order 13551 that placed US sanctions on a single North Korean official, General Kim Yong-chol, the RGB he commanded, and the Green Pine Associated Corporation, a North Korean front company the US and others have identified as acting on the RGB's behalf to sell prohibited arms, including to Iran and Syria.
The day before Kim Yong-chol was promoted to full general, Pyongyang announced the creation of a new medal, the "Order of Kim Jong-il," awarded for services in building a "thriving socialist nation" and for the military defense of the country. The first recipients of the award included Kim Yong-chol.
Kim Yong-chol's direct superior, General O Kuk-ryol, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, is another prominent figure in the new regime's inner circle. The UN described O Kuk-ryol as "supervising the acquisition abroad of advanced technology for nuclear and ballistics programs" in a list of sanctioned North Korean officials he was placed on in 2009. The EU added him to its list in December of last year.
At this year's March 25 ceremonies closing Kim Jong-il's 100-day mourning period, Minister of People's Armed Forces and Vice-Marshal Kim Yong-chun delivered the keynote speech which said that Kim Jong-eun "has turned North Korea into an invincible country which nobody dares to attack".
United Nations and US documents from 2011 placed Kim Yong-chun, identified as "special adviser to Kim Jong-il on nuclear strategy" on a sanction list that froze his assets and imposed a travel ban. He currently serves as Pyongyang's de facto defense minister and was one of only eight leaders to walk with Kim Jong-eun alongside the hearse during Kim Jong-il's recent funeral procession.
Analysts say that the decision to name Kim Jong-eun as successor to his father was made by early 2009 and subsequent reshuffles made within the party and military have paved the way for a smooth transition. In February 2009, O Kuk-ryol was appointed vice chairman of the NDC and Kim Yong-chun was appointed minister of the People's Armed Forces.
In April 2009, Kim Yong-chun, O Kuk-ryol, Jon Pyong-ho, Paek Se-bong, Jang Song-thaek and Ju Kyu-chang were all elected to North Korea's highest body, the National Defense Commission. All six are also named as key figures in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program by the UN, US and other governments, and have all been prominent in public appearances with Kim Jong-eun in recent weeks.
Second Economy Commission chairman Paek Se-bong (circled) applauds at the start of a national report meeting for Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 15, 2012. He was given the rank of colonel general (sangjang) in a military promotions list issued on the occasion of Kim Jong-il's 70th birthday. At past national events, Paek Se-bong had been observed wearing business suits (Photo: KCNA-Yonhap)
Prior to the current diplomatic scuffle over the upcoming supposed satellite launch, North Korea was accused of creating nearly identical crises in 2009 when it launched a long-range, multi-stage rocket it referred to as a space satellite. The move was in defiance of a UN ban, broke off then six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and set the stage for a new underground nuclear test, the country's second.
The following year saw North Korea launch an artillery attack on South Korea that claimed the lives of 46 South Koreans and stoked international fears that the Koreas were near war.
In recent weeks, the same North Korean officials known to command these provocative events have been given high-profile promotions as Pyongyang unveils the new core of leaders behind Kim Jong-eun's new regime. In addition to the 10, other senior officials have also been named as key figures in North Korea's illicit nuclear and ballistic missile program.
Pak Jae-gyong and Hyon Chol-hae, both of the Korean People's Army's political department, are named as "military adviser to Kim Jong-il" in UN and other sanctions lists. Head of the Academy of Science, Pyon Yong-rip, is also named as "involved in WMD-related biological research". All three played prominent roles in the ceremonies that followed the death of Kim Jong-il in the carefully orchestrated succession process to crown Kim Jong-eun as North Korea's new dictator.
Several other powerful figures who are not named in international sanctions also play key roles in the new inner power circle. Korean People's Army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho and two NDC members, Generals U Dong-guk and Kim Jong-gak, are also known to be in Kim Jong-eun's inner circle.
Vice Marshal Kim Jong-gak (2nd right) seen at a March 25, 2012, rally ending the 100 days of mourning Kim Jong-il's death. He nominated Kim Jong-eun as one of the Korean People's Army's delegates to the 4th Party Conference in April 2012. Ministry of State Security's General U Tong-chuk (3rd right).
U Dong-guk heads the State Security Department responsible for domestic intelligence while Kim Jong-gak is in charge of ensuring loyalty to the new leader within the armed forces and party. Kim Ki-nam, meanwhile, leads the formidable propaganda operation in charge of molding Kim Jong-eun's image. Another prominent figure is Choe Tae-bok who is involved in Pyongyang's scientific and technological development which concentrates mainly on efforts to build a sophisticated military state.
The coming weeks will see the further unveiling of top advisers who hold the real power in the new regime, say analysts. The 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, will take place on April 15. State media have touted the date for several years as a major national turning point, marking the regime's promise to create "a mighty and prosperous nation".
The official Korean Central News Agency said on Monday that a rare Workers' Party conference will be held on April 11, shortly before Kim Il-sung's birthday celebration. At that event, his grandson, Kim Jong-eun, is expected to be named the secretary general of the KWP, the title previously held by his father Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung still retains the title of president in death.
North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, is set to hold its annual session on April 13. It is expected Kim Jong-eun will also be promoted to chairman of the NDC, another post held by his now deceased father. Coincident with these transitional events, Pyongyang informed international maritime and space organizations that it will launch its ballistic missile into orbit between April 12 and 16.
Nate Thayer, former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is an investigative reporter specializing in conflict, transnational crime, and Asian affairs. He is currently based in Washington DC and may be reached at [email protected]
(Copyright 2012 Nate Thayer.)