SEOUL, KOREA — In its 2011 New Year editorial, North Korea emphasizes the need to become a powerhouse of science, technology, knowledge, and economy. Kim Jong-eun, the designated successor to Kim Jong-il, is reputed to be a computer expert. It is said that based on CNC (Computer Numerical Control), presented as a great achievement of Kim Jong-eun, North Korea expects great progress in science and globalization.
In general, CNC is one of the most advanced disciplines in contemporary science and technology. CNC in machine tools is often referred to as "the mother of machinery". It is a highly advanced, proprietary technology that only a few countries in the world such as Germany (Siemens) and Japan (Mazak, Fanuc) master. Despite this, the North Korean government openly maintains that "our CNC technology has solidly reached the world’s highest level". Although North Korea tends to hyperbole, it is not an exaggeration given North Korea has launched satellites, indicating North Korean CNC technology is already highly advanced.
1. Status of North Korean Machine Tools
The term, machine tools for CNC, appeared in North Korea for the first time when Kim Jong-il found it on a trip for onsite training on April 29, 1995 and titled it "Ryonha Machinery". Later, "Ryonha Machinery" became a broad term that covers various advanced machine tools manufactured in North Korea. The reports revealing North Korea's current capacity to process machine tools for CNC include "the development of two-four axis standard machine tools for CNC in the 1990s, five-axis center lathe in the 2000s, and high-performance eight-nine axis machine tools for CNC" and "the development of nine-axis turning center lathe as the most advanced machine tool for CNC by Ryonha Machinery", according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on September 11, 2010.
This means that North Korea has achieved complete independence in developing eight or nine-axis machine tools as well as five-axis tools that are already universal among advanced countries.
As of yet, no accurate materials on the current status of precision of North Korean machine tools for CNC are available in South Korea. However, an article entitled "CNC technology" on the N. Korean newspaper Tongil Sinbo from January 2010 reports that "from the 1980s, the precision level of l/1,000mm(l㎛), unimaginable before, has become common and the super precise processing up to 0.l㎛ (100nm) has become our reality."
While a precision of up to 5nm is required for high-resolution electro-optical cameras used in satellites, given N. Korea's two satellite launches in the 1980s mean its processing capacity for 100nm, North Korean machine tools have reached world-class levels that can compete with Germany and Japan.
This assumption can be confirmed from the fact that the USA selected the factory at Ryonha Machinery for sanctions. The USA has been aware of the power and level of North Korean technology for CNC for a long time. On October 21, 2005, the United States selected the factory (Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation) for sanctions so that North Korean machine tools could not be exported overseas, which is still in place today.
2. The significance of North Korean technology for CNC
As mentioned previously, CNC technology is divided into mechanical processing and automatic control technologies. It is said that currently, North Korea applies CNC technology to machinery factories such as Pyongyang Textile Machine Factory, Guseong Machine Tool Factory, Ganggye Tractor Factory, Yongseong Machine Complex, and Taean Heavy Machine Complex.
Additionally, CNC technology for automatic control has been introduced to sweets and food manufacturing bases such as Pyongyang Goksan Factory and Pyongyang Flour Processing Factory. This has removed manual labor and many companies have realized the potential of CNC processing to increase production. Chollima Steel Complex realized CNC application reaching 10,000 tons in press.
The significance lies in that North Korea has represented CNC technology as a symbol to break free from US economic sanctions, and as a hope for independent rehabilitation. North Korea, the subject of US economic sanctions for several decades, has independently developed the world’s most advanced technology in defiance of such sanctions and is now seeking practical gains to contribute to the improvement of its people by introducing advanced technologies to overall industries. North Korea aims to break away from US economic sanctions and become an economically sound country, as it aims to become a "powerful country" in 2012, at the occasion of 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung. The major import of North Korean development of CNC technology is that its power production is gradually stabilized.
As for machine tools, the precision level of machines is important but power shall be steadily supplied for precise processing. According to figures released by the Ministry of Unification, North Korea has developed ‘about 1,000 small and medium-sized power plants in 1999, 130 in 2000, 80 in 2001, 40 in 2002 and several tens in 2003. The urge to build various small and medium-sized power plants for power supply seems to have contributed to solving the power shortage, leading to stable power supply sustaining the processing of machine tools. (Of course, stable power supply does not mean that the power status has changed to provide power to all areas of its society and economy sufficiently. The fact that North Korea aims to construct a light-water reactor via uranium enrichment technology implies that it has not solved the power problem fundamentally as well as its potential demand.)
The development of CNC technology also provides an aspect of the future society promoted by North Korea. North Korean companies try to secure CNC as can be seen from the examples such as CNC application to super-large machine tools at Taean Heavy Machine Complex and CNC application to Vinalon-manufacture processes at 2.8 Vinalon Complex. The ultimate aim is to integrate and automate all manufacturing processes, reduce physical labor, and finally accomplish unmanned manufacturing.
Hence, North Korean CNC technology has reached world-class levels and is applied to its light industry and agriculture. North Korea says "we will revive our economy neoterically based on the most advanced science and technology rather than patching up insufficiency." How North Korean economy will change via the advanced science and technology and what roles North Korean CNC technology will play in the process most admittedly deserve our attention.