Kim Jong-un’s nuclear scientists take centre stage after missile test

Leader looking to cadre of weapons experts to realise ambition of developing missile that can carry nuclear warhead to US

Decorated by Pyongyang but blacklisted abroad, two scientists pictured with North Korea’s leader before Sunday’s nuclear test have emerged as playing vital roles in the ambitions of the rogue state’s leader, Kim Jong-un, say experts.

Photographs released by the official KCNA news agency hours before the test showed two men standing alongside Kim as he inspected a new peanut-shaped warhead, or perhaps a model of the bomb: Ri Hong-sop, the head of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute, and Hong Sung-mu, deputy director of the ruling Workers’ party of Korea’s munitions industry department.

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sunday showed the country has either developed a hydrogen bomb – which has vastly more destructive power than atomic bombs – or is very getting close to obtaining one.

Several North Korea leadership experts say the two scientists are part of a cadre of weapons experts at the front line of Kim’s stated ambition: developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can carry a nuclear weapon to the US.

Compared with his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung – who preferred small working groups and middle managers to deal with weapons programmes – the 33-year-old leader has been more personally involved with these scientists, experts say, citing his frequent appearances with the technocrats at state events, weapons tests and field inspections.

“It appears that Hong is spearheading the nuclear development programme as a senior party official and Ri is in charge of nuclear tests such as hydrogen bombs on a working level,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul, who monitors the country’s hierarchy and leadership.

Reuters could not independently confirm the precise role of the two men. The North Korean government does not provide foreign media with a contact point in Pyongyang for comment by email, fax or phone. The North Korean mission to the UN was not immediately available for comment.

However, a Reuters review of North Korean state media showed the two scientists have become increasingly high profile as Pyongyang’s weapons programmes have advanced at a rapid pace under Kim’s leadership.

In January 2016, Hong and Ri were the first and second in line to receive medals personally awarded by Kim at a ceremony to mark the country’s fourth nuclear test, state television footage showed.

Two months later, they accompanied a smiling Kim inspecting a silver-coloured sphere, which the North said was a miniaturised warhead capable of being fitted to an ICBM.

The wider group of weapons technocrats includes a trio of rocket scientists who have accompanied Kim on several crucial missile launches, including two July ICBM test launches that showed much of the US mainland was now within range.

Like the three rocket scientists, Ri and Hong have been blacklisted in recent years by the UN, the US or South Korea for their roles in Pyongyang’s weapons programmes.

The UN blacklisted Ri in 2009, citing his involvement “in the production of weapons-grade plutonium”, while an expert UN panel this year noted Hong’s “key role in the country’s nuclear programme” as it recommended he also be sanctioned.

Ri is a former director of Yongbyon nuclear research centre, North Korea’s main nuclear facility north of Pyongyang. Yongbyon operates the country’s first nuclear reactors and its only confirmed uranium enrichment facility.

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear science professor at Stanford University and one of the last Americans to visit Yongbyon, recalled meeting Ri during several visits there between 2004 and 2008. During one of these visits, Ri showed Hecker around the plutonium reactor and the radiochemical lab there.

Ri “stated with pride” that North Korea’s nuclear researchers have mastered plutonium production with no outside help, Hecker said in a 2006 report about his Yongbyon visit to Stanford’s centre for international security and cooperation. Hecker did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Ri or the North Korean nuclear programme.

Hong is a former chief engineer at Yongbyon and has been at the ruling party’s munitions department since the mid-2000s. He rose to prominence after Kim took power in December 2011 after the death of his father, according to a South Korean government database.

Hong, 75, has been seen accompanying Kim on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches since 2012, the South Korean database and pictures released by KCNA show. He was educated in central and eastern Europe and possibly in Russia as well, while Ri attended seminars abroad, said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership.

“They are top-level officials and the last generation of those who studied in the old communist world,” he said.