Could Pyongyang’s nuke missile program get 3D printers?

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A new stamp issued in commemoration of the successful test launch of the "Hwasong-14" ICBM is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on August 8, 2017. KCNA/via Reuters

Ukrainian-made rocket engines and illicit components from Chinese makers are being credited for a recent spate of successful North Korean missile launches. Such flouting of non-proliferation rules frustrates efforts to find solutions to the crisis.

However, there’s another, potentially worse development looming: What if Pyongyang reverse-engineers such equipment and uses advanced 3D printing technology to mass-produce rocket and nuclear-bomb parts?

The cutting-edge technology of 3D printing, which rapidly creates physical objects from three-dimensional digital models, is a game changer for North Koreans and others who want to reverse-engineer and make weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in quantity. Analysts say signs are that North Korea is trying to acquire 3D printers for this purpose, or may have already.

The potential threat involves more than North Korea – 3D printers could also be used by terrorist groups such as ISIS to bolster their ability to produce WMD, and it may be too late to keep such technology from falling into the wrong hands.

Robert Shaw, a US arms-control expert, says there’s no hard evidence yet that Pyongyang has acquired advanced 3D printing technology. But he told Asia Times: “I would be surprised if there were not already efforts to procure high-end 3D printers. Ideally, they would want to procure such machines in quantity.”

Shaw is a program director for the Export Control and Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an elite California graduate school formerly known as the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Underscoring North Korea’s interest in 3D printing, Shaw says, is the fact that the regime has already developed an indigenously produced 3D printing device. The “maker bot” was displayed at the 19th International Trade Fair in Pyongyang in May 2016.

“It looks very much like a 3D maker bot that you would see for sale in the US,” Shaw said.

Shaw first wrote about the 3D printer danger in a February article for the Washington, DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. The analysis, titled “3D Printing: Bringing Missile Production to a Neighborhood Near You”, noted that North Korea might be tempted to explore new production methods such as 3D printing to accelerate its WMD delivery systems.

Shaw pointed out that North Korea already uses computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tools to make parts for missile and aerospace programs. He says the sophisticated devices were reverse-engineered from foreign products. He is convinced North Korea will take the same path with 3D printers.

The addition of 3D printing could give Kim Jong-un the secret sauce he needs for his WMD recipes. Shaw said in his analysis that “3D printing has the potential to greatly reduce the costs and expertise requirements of these and other proliferation programs.

Employed strategically, 3D printing could reduce cycle times in development of missiles and other military systems and – with the right printers and software – even reduce the number of skilled engineers for such programs.”

North Korea, with its labyrinth of front companies, black-market intermediaries, shippers and financing networks, has already proved that it can sidestep international sanctions designed to halt access to such technology.

Export control dilemma

Can anything be done to stop North Korea and other bad actors from acquiring 3D printing tech?

Shaw says the spread of such technology could be held in check by strengthening existing export controls and requiring 3D printer manufacturers to monitor sales to foreign buyers carefully.

But it may be a losing battle. Shaw notes that the export-control rules governing Cold War-era bodies such as the Missile Technology Control Regime currently have few controls in place that focus on 3D printers.

On the other hand, there are existing regulations that would allow the US and other nations to ban shipments of design files and metal powders used in 3D printer manufacturing. 

The technology is tougher to control in cases of so-called dual-use or outwardly harmless civilian products incorporating 3D printing technology that slip through export nets and which have military uses.

Advanced tech like 3D printers can also be shipped to nations not on banned lists and re-integrated by unscrupulous manufacturers into other products. These products can then be shipped to North Korea. This has already happened in the case of industrial milling machines sold to North Korea by a Chinese company.

To make matters worse, the proliferation of online marketplaces such as Alibaba makes it easy to sell 3D printers anywhere in the world, and such sales are extremely hard to police.

Other headaches involve halting the Internet transmission of 3D printing files by bad actors in the cybersecurity domain. North Korea could send such files to a 3D services company in any foreign country. The parts could then be made on demand and smuggled back.

Angelo Codevilla, a former senior official on the US Senate Intelligence Committee, says international efforts to control the spread of potentially dangerous technology like 3D printers are doomed to failure. He says the only answer lies in using technology to develop such countermeasures as anti-missile screens.

North Korea already has intercontinental missiles, Codevilla noted to Asia Times, adding: “Non-proliferation has always been a pipe dream.” 

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