The scientists who have propelled North Korea’s decades-long nuclear program are, like much else in the tightly controlled communist country, shrouded in a deep veil of secrecy.
Experts say it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint a single scientist who can be categorically identified as the “father” of North Korea’s drive to tame the atom.
“There’s no A.Q. Khan,” said Bertil Lintner, author of a book on North Korea’s leadership, referring to the Pakistani scientist credited with leading his nation’s entry to the nuclear club — and who admitted proliferating technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya.
Though nuclear development is always a group effort, it relies on the brains and willpower of key, often charismatic individuals who end up being lauded as the driving force of national atomic efforts.
“With Pakistan and other countries, they’ve got ’Mr. Bomb,”’ said Peter Beck, Seoul-based North Korea analyst for the conflict resolution think-tank International Crisis Group. “It’s possible at some point this person will be identified, but it’s only if the North wants (the world) to know.”
All praises to the leader
Indeed, experts generally agree that in North Korea, any scientific stars have been largely subsumed, like most endeavors there, into a collective effort under draconian supervision — and in any case, all major advances are attributed to leader Kim Jong Il or his late father, founding ruler Kim Il Sung.
“North Korea is the most closed society in the world,” said Kim Kyoung-soo, a professor at Seoul’s Myongji University and editor of a book on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “We don’t have public access to their documents.”
Still, among North Korean scientists there is a “handful who truly have been pivotal, and without their drive and experience, their nuclear program would not have proceeded to the point where it is today,” said Joseph Bermudez, a senior analyst at Jane’s Information Group who specializes in North Korean defense and intelligence.
The origins of the North’s nuclear quest, which culminated in its announcement that it carried out an underground test explosion Oct. 9, can be traced to the end of World War II.
That brought the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from decades of Japanese rule, but also its split into rival capitalist and communist camps in the North and South.
Studies in other countries
Some of the scientists credited with helping lay the foundation for a nuclear program after 1945, such as To Sang Rok and Lee Sung Ki, studied at Japanese universities during the colonial period. Both are dead.
Another influential figure, Seo Sang Guk, studied in the 1950s along with many other North Korean scientists in the Soviet Union, which played a major role in the country’s nuclear development. Seo is thought to live in the North.
“He is viewed as a so-called genius,” Hwang Jang Yop, who held a key position in the North’s ruling Workers Party and is the highest- ranking official to defect from the country, told The Associated Press in an interview.
The most enigmatic purported North Korean nuclear scientist may be a man identified in various reports as Kyong Won Ha.
In April 2003, The Australian newspaper reported he was among key North Korean nuclear specialists who defected to the West, describing him as the “father of North Korea’s nuclear program.”
As many as 20 senior North Korean military and science officials made it out through China as part of a complex scheme dubbed “Operation Weasel” involving 11 nations over a six-month period, the newspaper reported.
The Australian originally said Kyong went to the United States, but in a subsequent report placed him in Spain.
Asked at the time if Kyong was in the United States, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he could never discuss possible defections.
While some in South Korea acknowledge Kyong as a key figure in the North’s nuclear development, others, including the defector Hwang, say they either don’t know about him or have only heard of him in media reports.
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily ran a nine-part series on Kyong in 2005, tracing his early life, study in South Korea, sojourns in Brazil and later Canada, where he attended graduate school, as well as his entry to North Korea in 1972.
Kim Tae-woo, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said Kyong played a “very important role” in Pyongyang’s nuclear development — and was probably still in the North.
Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, visited the secretive Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in January 2004 and told the journal Nature the people he met there “were very competent, no question about it.”
Hecker declined to comment through a spokeswoman at Stanford University, where he is a professor, about individual scientists in the North.
One nuclear program or many?
The complex organizational nature of the North’s nuclear program can also serve as an obscuring factor.
“You can’t say there’s a single program,” said Jane’s Bermudez. “It straddles across the entire scope of North Korea — the party, the military, the Cabinet.”
For North Koreans, however, there’s only one acceptable answer to who the “father” of their nuclear program is.
Kenneth Quinones, a former North Korea specialist at the State Department, spent a total of about five months at Yongbyon in the mid-1990s after the North agreed to scrap its plutonium-based nuclear program under an agreement that later collapsed.
There, he said he saw a huge, brightly painted mural depicting a figure surrounded by nuclear imagery: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.