SINGAPORE (Reuters) - During the funeral ceremonies for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il this week, the man in charge of the isolated state’s missile program and possibly its nuclear plans, paid a quiet visit to the mausoleum where the body lay in state.
Little is known about elderly and silver-haired Ju Kyu-chang, but he appears to be a key member of the North Korean team developing nuclear weapons.
The European Union has named the 73-year-old, who is believed to have trained as a metal alloy specialist and studied in Russia, as one of the individual North Koreans to attract sanctions slapped on the rogue communist state.
He was given two important posts in the regime in recent years, which analysts say were part of Kim Jong-il’s moves after he suffered a stroke to set a succession plan in place and ensure safe custody of the nuclear weapons.
“I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the U.S. Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War Two,” said Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service for 43 years.
“Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons.”
Ju was ranked 20th on the list of the national funeral committee for Kim Jong-il, an indicator of his stature. Just above him in 19th position was Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of new leader Kim Jong-un and the man seen as the power behind the throne.
According to the European Union, Ju had oversight of the two tests of North Korea’s intermediate-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles in 2006 and 2009. Less is known about his connection to the development of nuclear weapons.
But the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a 2009 report on North Korea that Ju “is believed to be in charge of the nuclear weapons development program.”
It said Ju’s 2009 promotion to the National Defense Commission (NDC), the supreme leadership council, was probably linked to a move to put him in charge of an independent entity with custody of North Korea’s nuclear bombs when they were developed.
Daniel Pinkston, one of the authors of the ICG report, told Reuters there was no information on whether the new “command and control” body for nuclear weapons had been set up.
But he said of Ju: “He is close to the regime leadership because of his political loyalty to the Kim family and the party, in addition to his technical expertise regarding the SLV (space launch vehicle) and satellite programs and the nuclear weapons program.”
Officially, Ju is director of the oddly named Korean Workers’ Party Machine-Building Industry Department, which he has been associated with since the 1960s. But his power stems from the NDC post and also his being named to the Workers’ Party Central Military Commission in 2010.
He accompanied Kim Jong-il on a trip to Russia, according to media reports.
“Ju is in charge of managing the North’s ballistic missiles,” said Cho Min, at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“Some people think he may be involved in the North’s nuclear programs, but I am less confident about that. But on the other hand, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are inseparable.”
Analysts say Kim Jong-un will be in no hurry to make any changes and that Ju should remain in place for some time.
“The fact that he is still there means his father (Kim Jong-il) gave him the seal of approval as others considered threats or not loyal enough were replaced or retired over the past year or two,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the U.S. think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.
“Not sure where he fits in the pecking order but he is clearly among the top rung.”
But Ju is likely to have not much more than a bit part in any decision on the actual deployment of missiles or nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong-un and the close coterie around him, including his uncle Jang, aunt Kim Kyong-hui and military chief Ri Yong-ho, are likely to call the shots.
Kim Jong-un has already been named the supreme commander of the military, and “should have ultimate command and control of the nuclear arsenal,” said the ICG’s Pinkston. “I believe that is the case.”
The unpredictable state, which threatened on Friday to turn arch rival South Korea into “a sea of revengeful fire,” has rattled the region with two nuclear tests in the past five years and its missile program.
It is believed to have about 700 short-range Scud-type missiles and about 320 medium-range Nodongs. It is said to have amassed enough plutonium for about half a dozen bombs but is now believed to be working on producing highly enriched uranium, the other kind of fissile material used in nuclear bombs.
Niksch, the U.S. expert, says the North probably would need as little as one to two years to miniaturize and mount a nuclear warhead atop its medium-range Nodong missile once it has produced enough highly enriched uranium.
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf in WASHINGTON and Jack Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait