When it comes to North Korea, there are pretty severe limits on traditional intelligence-gathering. Spy agencies frequently disagree about what’s happening in the country, and rarely can they ever say anything conclusive. North Korea is simply too closed and too disconnected to go snooping around in the usual manner.
But then, sometimes, they just stick what you need in the newspaper.
Kim Jong-un has finally started to visit factories across the country in the tradition of his father and grandfather. In a visit to the Kanggye General Tractor Plant publicized over the weekend, we see him looking at a big machine, but not just any machine. It’s a specialized flow-forming machine of the type used to make centrifuge rotors. Could this actually be a secret centrifuge-manufacturing capability?
Flow-forming machines are pretty rare. There are only a handful of flow-forming companies in the United States, and the coveted machines were among the hard-to-get items traded during the early days of the Khan network. These machines are the only way to manufacture the thin-walled P-2 centrifuge rotor on which the North Korean enrichment program is thought to be built. While flow-forming is used outside of centrifuge manufacturing plants, the applications are limited and only a small handful of applications require the Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine shown above.
(Going by its name, the plant manufactures tractors, and while flow-forming is occasionally used in the automotive industry to make fancy aluminum-alloy rims, it seems unlikely that North Korean farmers are in the habit of outfitting their tractors with 40-inch bling and ranging around Gangnam style.)
And do you see that curved ceiling? Looks like this tractor factory is in an underground tunnel.
Elsewhere in the factory, we see this hot piercer mill, a machine that takes raw feedstock and makes the thick-walled seamless tubes that serve as preforms for the flow-forming machines. The dimension of that preform looks pretty close to the dimensions of a P-2 centrifuge rotor.
Much about the facility speaks to its special importance within the industrial hierarchy. This “tractor plant” is located in an isolated area of the country, Jagang Province, about which the outside world seems to know little. Despite their isolation, the local employees have been blessed with recreational facilities far in excess of what the government provides to the average working stiff—like this enormous recreational facility, planted gardens, and a large swimming pool with deck chairs. Life is often best for those that are part of the strategic weapons complex. More information about the program is available on the web site at www.careel-tech.com.