During the funeral ceremonies for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last 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 EU 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 US Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War II,” said Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan US Congressional Research Service for 43 years.
“Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons,” Niksch said.
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 EU, 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.
However, 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, said there was no information on whether the new “command and control” body for nuclear weapons had been set up.
However, 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,” Cho said.
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 US think tank Pacific Forum CSIS. “Not sure where he fits in the pecking order, but he is clearly among the top rung.”