North Korea: Rocket stars behind Kim Jong Un’s missile program revealed

: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the long-range strategic ballistic rocket test launch with Ri Pyong Chol (2nd L), Kim Jong Sik (C) and Jang Chang Ha (2nd R).

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates successful missile launches with the same three top aides and now the West knows their names.

They are Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force general; Kim Jong Sik, a veteran rocket scientist; and Jang Chang Ha, the head of a weapons development and procurement center, Reuters reported Friday in an exclusive dispatch.

“Rather than going through bureaucrats,  Kim Jong Un is keeping these technocrats right by his side, so that he can contact them directly and urge them to move fast. It reflects his urgency about missile development,” Chan-il Ahn, a former North Korean military officer who has defected to the South and runs a think tank in Seoul, told Reuters.

Kim favors these three men over other senior aides, Reuters reports. Photographs and TV footage have captured Kim and the men exchanging smiles and hugs and puffing on cigarettes together after missile launches that don’t fail.

The three are of great interest to Western security and intelligence agencies since they are the top people in the secretive country’s rapidly accelerating missile program, according to Reuters.

“Kim Jong Un is raising a new generation of people separate from his father’s key aides,” a South Korean official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters. Kim Jong Il died in late 2011 leaving the younger Kim in charge.

Ri is the most prominent.

He is now deputy director of the Workers’ Party Munitions Industry Department, which oversees the development of North Korea’s ballistic missile program, according to the South Korean government and U.S. Treasury, the news agency reported.

Kim Jong Sik, the rocket scientist, started his career as a civilian aeronautics technician, but now wears the uniform of a military general at the Munitions Industry Department, Reuters reported, citing experts and the South Korean government.

Jang Chang Ha is the mystery man of the three, according to the news service.

He is president of the Academy of the National Defence Science, previously called the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, according to the report.

The academy runs North Korea’s advanced weapons systems research and development, “including missiles and probably nuclear weapons”, the U.S. Treasury said in 2010 in its decision to blacklist the group.

“These are the men bringing North Korea’s missile program into the 21st Century,” said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership, told Reuters.

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