In recent years, North Korea has frustrated the US intelligence community, which has struggled to determine exactly how Kim Jong Un and his regime have managed to make so much progress, so quickly in their quest to develop a nuclear weapon capable of striking the Continental US.
The international community has authorized one round of sanctions after another, and yet they appear to have little impact on the country’s economy. If anything, these efforts have only served to strengthen the Kim’s grip on power by feeding the narrative - taught to every North Korean child - that the US is an evil, imperialist antagonist bent on subjugating the North.
While the exact means by which the North has managed to survive such immense international pressure remain a mystery, the New York Times has a theory: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has cultivated an aura of reverence and celebrity around the country’s nuclear scientists.
These celebrity scientists are known by nicknames like the “nuclear duo” and the “missile quartet”.
They also occupy a unique place in the North Korea power structure: While Kim, 33, has executed scores of senior officials - including his own uncle - he has turned the scientists into public heros. So far, not one nuclear scientist has been punished by the regime.
“We have never heard of him killing scientists,” said Choi Hyun-kyoo, a senior researcher in South Korea who runs NK Tech, a database of North Korean scientific publications. “He is someone who understands that trial and error are part of doing science."
As a result of this, each of the six nuclear tests conducted since 2006 has been more powerful than the last, an incredible feat of engineering, considering the restraints.
Kim has elevated science as an ideal in the regime’s propaganda and put his fondness for scientists and engineers on prominent display across North Korea.
One of the carrots Kim has offered his prized scientists is a street called “Future Scientists Street”. Opened four years after Kim assumed power in 2011, the street is reportedly filled with gleaming towers for scientists, engineers and their families.
Kim also opened a sprawling complex shaped like an atom that showcases the nation’s achievements in nuclear science, and where decadent galas are held to celebrate the nuclear program’s progress.
There is little doubt what is behind Mr. Kim’s passion for science. In ubiquitous propaganda posters, North Korean rockets soar into space and crash into the United States Capitol.
After successful tests, scientists and engineers are honored with huge outdoor rallies.
While international sanctions prohibit the teaching of science with potential military applications to North Korean students, the regime has hit upon several clever strategies to import nuclear research from the outside world.
Also, the country still manages to send talented students abroad to study science in places like China, India and even Germany.
Kim wasn’t the first North Korean leader to adopt these special privileges for scientists. Indeed, his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, embraced science as he struggled to rebuild North Korea from the ruins of the Korean War. He embraced those trained in Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony and later sent hundreds of students to the Soviet Union, East Germany and other socialist states.
One of them was So Sang-guk, a nuclear scientist who emerged as a key figure in the nation’s nuclear program but seems to have retired.
However, since taking power, Kim Jong-un appears to have overseen a generational shift at the top of the weapons program, elevating a group of scientists and officials about whom little is known.
But now, analysts have identified six figures who have repeatedly appeared alongside Mr. Kim at key moments - four tied to missile development and two associated with nuclear tests.
Two members of the “missile quartet” are scientists, according to state media. Jang Chang-ha is 53 and president of the Academy of National Defense Science, and Jon Il-ho, 61, is commonly described as an “official in the field of scientific research.”
Ri Pyong-chol appears to be the quartet’s highest-ranking member. A former air force commander, he serves as first deputy director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s munitions industry department.
Kim Jong-sik, 49, first began appearing with Kim Jong-un in February 2016 and has an engineering background. His rise has coincided with an acceleration of test launches, but he and Ri did not attend last month’s launch.
Ri Hong-sop is the director of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute. He appears to be a key figure in the nuclear program.
Hong Sung-mu, the other member of the “nuclear duo,” is a former chief engineer at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the birthplace of the North’s nuclear weapons program.
But in perhaps one of the most significant trappings of the scientists’ status in North Korean society is the picture below, where several scientists can be seen sharing a cigarette with Kim - a major privilege considering Kim is revered like a God in North Korea.
After successful tests, sometimes Kim will even embrace his scientists, some of whom can be seen weeping. In another stunning image, Kim can be seen carrying one of the scientists on his back - a play on an old Korean tradition.
North Korea carried out its most powerful nuclear test yet back in September when it detonated what was estimated to be a 300 kiloton bomb. Despite indications that the North’s longtime test site at Punggye-ri is suffering from “tired mountain syndrome”, satellite imaging recently showed the North’s military is hard at work on a new tunnel located in a remote area of the test site...
...Suggesting that the North is already preparing to carry out what would be its seventh nuclear test.