- Title: Kim's rocket stars: The trio behind North Korea's missile programme
- Date: 25th May 2017
- Summary: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (MAY 24, 2017) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (Korean) PRESIDENT OF WORLD INSTITUTE FOR NORTH KOREAN STUDIES, AHN CHAN-IL, SAYING: "Rather than going through bureaucrats, Kim Jong Un is keeping these technocrats right by his side, so that he can be in direct contact with them and urge them to move fast. It reflects his urgency about missile development."
- Embargoed: 8th June 2017 11:56
- Keywords: Kim Jong Sik North Korean trio Kim Jong Un Ri Pyong Chol missiles North Korea Jang Chang Ha state media nuclear weapons
- Location: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA / CHOLSAN, DONGCHANG-RI, UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION, NORTH KOREA / UTAH, UNITED STATED / IN AIR
- City: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA / CHOLSAN, DONGCHANG-RI, UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION, NORTH KOREA / UTAH, UNITED STATED / IN AIR
- Country: North Korea
- Topics: Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA0046IH5JR9
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: After successful missile launches, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un often exchanges smiles and hugs with three men and shares a celebratory smoke with them.
The three, shown in photographs and TV footage on North Korean media, are of great interest to Western security and intelligence agencies since they are the top people in the secretive country's rapidly accelerating missile programme. They include Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force general; Kim Jong Sik, a veteran rocket scientist; and Jang Chang Ha, the head of a weapons development and procurement centre.
The photographs and TV footage show that the three are clearly Kim's favourites. Their behaviour with him is sharply at variance with the obsequiousness of other senior aides, most of whom bow and hold their hands over their mouths when speaking to the young leader.
With their ruling Workers Party, military and scientific credentials, the trio is indispensable to North Korea's rapidly developing weapons programmes - the isolated nation has conducted two nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches since the beginning of last year, all in violation of U.N. resolutions.
Photos distributed by state media after North Korea's successful test of what it called an intermediate-range missile on Sunday (May 14) show Ri, Kim Jong Sik and Jang smiling next to Kim Jong Un as the rocket soared into the sky. Other photos at test sites have shown Kim Jong Un giving bear hugs to the men.
"Kim (Jong Un) is definitely doing 'missile politics', said An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South and runs a think tank in Seoul, adding that their closeness to the leader "reflects his urgency about missile development".
The most prominent of the three is Ri Pyong Chol, a former air force commander who was once responsible for monitoring the entire country's airspace, according to leadership experts.
Always shown smiling in photographs, he is now deputy director of the Workers' Party Munitions Industry Department, which oversees the development of North Korea's ballistic missile programme, according to the South Korean government and U.S. Treasury. The department was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in 2010 and Ri was named by the South Korean government last year for activities related to the country's weapons programmes.
Born in 1948, Ri was educated in Russia and promoted when Kim Jong Un started to rise through the ranks in the late 2000s, Madden and the South Korean government say.
Ri has visited China once and Russia twice. He met China's defence minister in 2008 as the air force commander and accompanied Kim Jong Il on a visit to a Russian fighter jet factory in 2011, according to state media.
"In terms of North Korea's missile development, nuclear weapons development, Ri Pyong Chol is the second in command," said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership.
The rocket scientist in the trio is Kim Jong Sik, who started his career as a civilian aeronautics technician, but now wears the uniform of a military general at the Munitions Industry Department, according to experts and the South Korean government. But it was his role in North Korea's first successful launch of a rocket in 2012 which really helped him earn his wings.
"There are more people that are getting their jobs based on accomplishment and not on elite birth. And with regard to Kim Jong Sik, obviously, I think that is somebody that is there because of his own accomplishments," said Madden.
Last year, Kim Jong Sik was at the National Aerospace Development Administration or "NADA", North Korea's official space agency, where he escorted Kim Jong Un through the mission control room ahead of a successful long-range rocket launch in February.
State TV footage showed him riding to a launch site in Kim Jong Un's private plane. Upon arrival, he accompanied the young leader down the red carpet and received flowers from other senior officials.
Few other details, including his age, are known.
Of the three men, the least is known about Jang Chang Ha, president of the Academy of the National Defence Science, previously called the Second Academy of Natural Sciences.
The body is in charge of the secretive country's research and development of its advanced weapons systems, "including missiles and probably nuclear weapons", the U.S. Treasury said in 2010 in its decision to blacklist the group.
The organisation obtains technology, equipment, and information from overseas for use in weapons programmes, the Treasury said. Jang was added to the Treasury blacklist in December 2016.
Under Jang's leadership, the academy has around 15,000 staff, including some 3,000 missile engineers, according to South Korean media reports, citing unnamed sources.
North Korea's banned weapons programme began in the early 2000s with a similar trio of men close to the leadership who specialised in procurement, science and military affairs.
Of them, logistician Jon Pyong Ho has died. The others - scientist So Sang Guk and military coordinator O Kuk Ryol - are elderly and no longer in the public eye.
Their place, Madden said, has been taken by Kim Jong Un's hand-picked men.
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