Research centre in the Himalayan foothills trained North Korean scientists

New Delhi, June 21: Hong Yong-il is the North Korean embassy’s new first secretary to India and has been in the country for just a month. He lives on the first floor of a two-storey house in a tree-lined lane in Delhi’s busy Lajpat Nagar.

The apartment is huge but nondescript, sparsely furnished; a much modest affair, as compared to many other diplomatic residences in the Indian capital. Hong wears on his shirt a miniature badge, with the face of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding father and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

This is not Hong’s first stint in India. In 1996, he stayed in the country for nine months, studying a course in remote sensing technology at the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP). The research centre is located in Dehradun, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas, about 235km from the Indian capital New Delhi.

Hong was, in fact, one of the first students North Korea sent to train at the centre, a school set up in 1995 by the UN, to ensure that “in years to come, no country in the region will have to look abroad for expertise in Space Science & Technology application”.

Since then, North Korea has sent at least 30 students to train at the institute.

Two are currently studying there, one of whom is affiliated with the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), which the report says plays a key role in the country’s nuclear development programme.

And it kept sending scientists and space employees, even after the UN issued the first set of nuclear sanctions in 2006, prohibiting member countries from providing technical training to North Korea.

The lapse was exposed only in March 2016 in an annual report by to the Security Council. The “repeated applications” by North Korea, the report said, indicates the courses were relevant to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programme.

The UN has issued five major sanctions against North Korea since 2006. However, some of the course modules at the centre training the North Koreans might have violated provisions of the sanctions.

Investigators also found a course on satellite communications, which is in violation of a resolution banning “any transfers” to or from North Korea, “technical training, advice, services or assistance related to nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction- related programmes”.

Sarnam Singh, programme coordinator and director of one of the courses, said the institute was not accepting applications from any more North Korean students. India is due to present a detailed report to an UN advisory committee on the issue.
“The government of India needs to acknowledge the seriousness of this error, take accountability for it, and publicly commit that it will not be an enabler of North Korean WMD programmes thenceforth.”

“India won’t knowingly violate US sanctions,” he said. India is concerned about “proliferation links between North East Asia and our neighbourhood”, Vikas Swaroop, India’s foreign office spokesperson, had said, in an indirect reference to Pakistan’s AQ Khan network.

The network was ran by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, and who is credited with selling sensitive nuclear technology to North Korea.

In 2004, Khan got a pardon from then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf and made a televised confession saying he acted alone and absolved the Pakistan government of any hand or knowledge in the network. Pakistan, backed by China, and India, backed by the US, are currently seeking the much-coveted membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an elite group of 48 nuclear supplier countries.

On Monday, the NSG begins a weeklong meeting in Seoul, South Korea, to take a decision on the membership of both India and Pakistan.

The controversy surrounding the training of North Korean scientists may or may not have much bearing on the outcome of the Seoul meeting, but it does amount to a curious footnote to the global debate on nuclear non-proliferation and missile technology control.