My wife’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. The handbook he used during the fifties include a sizeable chapter on how to correctly dimension flat belt drives for power transmission, using leather as the material of choice. When I took up the same trade half a century later, the corresponding literature had abandon leather belts, computer-controlled manufacturing methods such as CNC milling receiving much coverage instead. This simple fact is something most people would acknowledge without further questions when confronted with, but it’s impact when discussing the North Korean weapons program is rarely discussed.
But let’s take it from the beginning. The speed of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have shocked a number of commentators. How could a country best known for being dirt poor and ruled by a madman be able to master some of the world’s most powerful weaponry? While understandable, this reaction overlooks three fundamental issues: the strength of the driving forces behind the program, the nature of the regime, and the technical advances which has taken place in the last decades.
It is easy to dismiss the North Korean regime as a modern-day version of Game of Thrones with Chairman Kim in the leading role. However, there is preciously little to indicate that Kim Jong-un would be mad in the sense that he is crazy. Evil, yes. Ruthless, certainly. Ruling a bizarre country, without a doubt. But in the end, his actions are sensible and valid if his main goal is the survival of himself and the regime. The fate of recently deposed dictators does give ample room for concern for those still in power. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević died in his prison cell in The Hague during a trial lasting several years, Saddam Hussein was hanged, Hosni Mubarak was only saved by the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in a particularly gruesome way. The fate of Mubarak also shows that even purportedly friendly autocrats should be careful to trust the US administration when it comes to having their back in the case of an overthrow attempt.
That the US supports democratic movements and that crimes against humanity are punished are certainly positive factors for anyone believing in a society based on human rights combined with law and order. However, if you happen to be a vile despot, this is bad news, and should compel you to find a solution to deter any external attempts at your ouster. For Kim, the natural answer was nuclear weapons, and the surest way of delivering them unintercepted is long-range missiles.
But how could Pyongyang ever afford such a venture? It is true that the state of the North Korean economy is deplorable. At a gross-domestic product of $28.50 billion, it is a mere fraction of that of its southerly neighbour, with Seoul coming in at $1.34 trillion. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, the US economy grew from around $300 to over $500 billions (today-dollars) between 1950 and 1959, the decade when the first US ICBM was developed in the form of the SM-65 Atlas. The comparison however overlook the fact that the underlying societies are fundamentally different. The US was and is a free market economy with only a part of the GDP being available for the state to allocate, and the state having to heavily factor in public opinion when deciding on how to spend its piece of the cake. In contrast, the North Korean regime exercises control over a vastly larger relative share of the economy, and has shown that it’s prepared to starve its own population if it judges the resources to be better allocated elsewhere. If Kim judges that a nuclear deterrence placing the continental US at risk is what guarantees him from suffering Gaddafi’s fate, there is no telling how big a share of the country’s (arguably limited) resources that are routed to the program.
However, what really sets the North Korean program apart from those of the recognised nuclear weapons states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the fact that neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear weapons are modern inventions any more. It is easy to forget due to their limited service numbers, but the ICBM is actually a sixty year old invention, with the fission bomb being a decade older still. That doesn’t mean that they are easy to design and manufacture, but the work is considerably easier today than in the fifties. To begin with, while the detailed designs of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are highly guarded secrets (which occasionally does leak), many of the basic concepts are known to researchers and academics through open sources. It is also close to certain that North Korea has actively at least tried to gather non-open information through either friendly sources or espionage. As such, even if Pyongyang wouldn’t have gotten complete blueprints or complete pieces of equipment, there would still be a number of healthy pointers to direct where to focus the research for maximum effect.
This is also where the radical change in manufacturing comes into play. Modern materials and high-performance alloys available on the open market makes the production of highly advanced assemblies possible. To make full use of these materials, advances in manufacturing machinery means that even small machine shops are nowadays able to produce machine parts with tolerances measured to the fourth decimal of a millimeter. Computer-aided design, CAD, simplifies the design process, and makes it possible to model both the manufacturing processes (e.g. modelling if a casting form fills up correctly) and how the final assembly will operate. It is hard to overstate the impact this has had on how complex machines are designed and manufactured. The ability to simulate the behavior of the finished machine in such varied fields as strength, aerodynamics, and heat propagation gives valuable insight into the performance that can be expected (though it should be noted that exactly modelling something as complex as an ICBM in flight is hard, and the quality of the simulations highly dependent on how skillful the engineers are). Again, suitable hardware and software are available on the open market.
No rogue state is an island, and as such it is clear that part of the know-how behind North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has been acquired abroad, either from willing channels (state or individual actors) or through outright espionage. However, writing off the country as stuck in the fifties and hence unable to produce anything more advanced than copies of Soviet tanks is an oversimplification. It does seem like Kim Jong-un feels the nuclear-armed ICBM is of crucial importance to be able to both deter the US from forcing regime change and to give Pyongyang more room to push its own agenda on the international scene. In addition, due to the nature of the North Korean society he is free to allocate significant parts of the country’s limited resources to the military (it might in fact be argued that the allocation of resources to the military is in part to blame for the rest of country being on the verge of starvation). Most importantly, the resources allocated provide significantly larger returns on investment due to the leap in manufacturing technology and being able to base their research on cues coming from earlier successful programs. Considering all of this, the speed of the North Korean ICBM and nuclear programs aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary.