UDMH Production in North Korea: Additional Facilities Likely

A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Michael Elleman and Curtis Melvin.

A recent article discussed the potential production of unsymmetrical di-methyl-hydrazine (UDMH) in North Korea. UDMH is an important liquid rocket engine fuel and is critical to North Korea’s long-range missile programs as it is used by the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems, and will likely also be used by future IRBMs and ICBMs. The article identified several research papers published by North Korean researchers related to this capability including one suggesting that production may be taking place at the February 8 Vinalon Complex in Hungnam.[1] This assessment is supported by the fact that this complex contains production lines for both chlorine and ammonia, chemicals used in the production of hydrazine, the presence of waste water ponds, and recent construction activities within the complex.

We believe that this article represents a reasonable starting point for the discussion of potential UDMH production in North Korea. That said, we would like to suggest additional locations that are likely involved in this activity—most notably, the July 27 Factory (a.k.a., Aoji-ri Chemical Complex)—and provide some additional thoughts and information to further the discussion, with the goal of developing a more granular picture of North Korea’s UDMH production capability. While most analysts agree that North Korea possesses the scientific and industrial capability to produce UDMH, no firm open source evidence has been found confirming this notion. However, the failure to domestically produce the fuel would represent an extremely vulnerable single-point-of-failure that the North understands well and has most likely addressed, given known historical practices within its arms production industry. We look forward to further discussion on this subject.

Timeline to UDMH

North Korea’s first access to UDMH technology likely occurred around 1992 with its drive to acquire technology and engineers from the Russian Isayev and Makayev Design Bureaus.[2] The first industrial-scale (but probably intermittent) demand for UDMH likely occurred around 2004-2007 during the development and initial deployment of the Hwasong-10 (Musudan) IRBM and when a small number of these systems (known locally as the BM-25) were transferred to Iran.[3] Resumed and ongoing demand for UDMH likely began during 2014-2015 (the same time period as the papers produced by the North Korean researchers) with the run-up to Musudan testing. Demand has, undoubtedly, increased with the development and testing of the Hwasong-12 IRBM[4] and Hwasong-14 ICBM.[5] These requirements for UDMH were likely initially satisfied by acquisition of limited quantities from abroad. Increasing demands during the past 10 years, however, have likely led to both the acquisition of additional quantities of UDMH where possible and the acquisition or development of technology to produce the fuel domestically. Moreover, the national ideology of Juche (self-reliance) and the tightening of international sanctions provide extremely powerful motivations for the development of an indigenous UDMH production capability.

Chemical Production

Chemical production within North Korea falls under the purview of the Ministry of Chemical Industry and State Academy of Sciences, and to a certain degree the Academy of Defense Sciences and the Second Economic Committee. There are at least 15 known institutes within the State Academy of Sciences that are responsible for research and development within the chemical industry, nine of which are subordinate to the Academy’s Hamhung Branch.

The Hamhung Branch is one of the Academy’s oldest branches and has been responsible for guiding and implementing both theoretical and practical research and production within the chemical industry.[6] It has also played and continues to play a key role in chemical weapons research, development and production, the nuclear program and almost assuredly in the research and production of both solid and liquid rocket engine fuels. In day-to-day operations Hamhung Branch researchers are members of various subordinate research institutes and are often assigned out to production facilities to guide work, implement new technologies, and carry out a host of other responsibilities.

In general, the institutes of the Academy of Defense Sciences are responsible for defense-related research and development, while the bureaus of the Second Economic Committee are responsible for defense-related production. In the case of UDMH, the 5th Machine Industry Bureau, in cooperation with the 4th Machine Industry Bureau, would most likely be responsible for any potential production. Each of these bureaus operates its own factories or separate production lines within larger industrial complexes. As with the Hamhung Branch, researchers and technicians from these organizations are often assigned out to production facilities to guide work.[7]

Understanding the above organizational practices and chain-of-command is important to understanding the potential implications of the affiliation of researcher Cha Seok Bong, who is mentioned in the recent article as being affiliated with the February 8 Vinalon Complex. If Cha is an employee of the February 8 Vinalon Complex, it suggests that the facility may be producing UDMH. If, however, he has been seconded to the facility from the Academy of Sciences, Academy of Defense Science and Second Economic Committee it would suggest a broader North Korean interest in, or capability for, UDMH production.

In the article, the author indicates that there are no obvious signatures for UDMH production using commercial satellite imagery yet goes on to observe the presence of minor construction activity and waste water ponds within the February 8 Vinalon Complex suggesting a potential linkage to potential UDMH production. These features, however, are common characteristics of chemical plants around the world and should be viewed with caution when attempting to assess UDMH production within North Korea.

For instance, finding recent construction at a North Korean chemical facility is common. In 1998, the North began a major long-term and ongoing process of modernizing and restructuring of the chemical industry at large chemical complexes including the Hamhung Fertilizer Complex, Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, Sunchon Chemical Complex Enterprise and others. Less extensive projects have taken place at other chemical facilities including the February 8 Vinalon Complex, Ponghwa Chemical Factory, Sunchon Phosphorous Fertilizer Plant, and others.[8]

Likewise, a preliminary examination of available satellite imagery of a wide selection of North Korean vinalon and chemical complexes over the past 15 years, including all those noted above, shows that all have waste water treatment facilities (in the case of the February 8 Vinalon Complex this is the Hungnam Water Treatment Plant), settling ponds, access to nearby rivers, or a combination of these features. Therefore, the presence of waste water ponds in and of themselves is difficult to attribute solely with possible UDMH production.

Potential Alternative Production Facilities

While the February 8 Vinalon Complex is identified as a candidate for the production of UDMH due to its production lines for both chlorine and ammonia, there are a number of other prominent chemical complexes that either produce or use these chemicals and possess the scientific and practical experience and industrial capability to produce UDMH. Among these, three stand out as potential candidates for producing UDMH: 1) the July 27 Factory (a.k.a., Aoji-ri Chemical Complex); 2) the Hamhung Fertilizer Complex; and 3) the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex. All of these facilities have also been associated with the production of chemical agents and/or precursors, and all consist of a collection of independent but interrelated factories, laboratories, research institutes and support facilities, rather than a single entity.[9]

Among these, the one of greatest interest is the July 27 Factory (a.k.a., Aoji-ri Chemical Complex or 7.27 Factory) located in the northeast (42.522437, 130.349402), adjacent to the town of Kyonghung (formerly Undok).[10] During 2003, a defector, Yi Pok Ku, who worked in the North’s missile program, stated that the factory was built during the 1970s and is subordinate to the Second Economic Committee to produce chemical weapons. Yi further describes the facility as “…a factory which synthesizes propulsion fuel for ballistic missiles” and that Dr. Yi Sung Ki—the “father” of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and the inventor of vinalon—took an active role in the factory’s development and operations as an early director of the Academy of Defense Sciences.[11] Yi Pok Ku’s account does not provide greater details about the type of “fuel for ballistic missiles” being produced, but it is clear from the timing that it was too early to be UDMH for the chronological reasons noted above. He was likely conflating production of AK-20K/TG-02 with later production of other fuels for the P-15 (SS-N-2 styx) anti-ship cruise missile,[12] which uses these propellants and was then in domestic production.[13]

During the past five years, a number of infrastructure changes have occurred within the July 27 Factory, although it is unclear whether these are related to the national-level chemical industry modernization program noted above. It stands to reason that a factory designed and built to produce dangerous chemical weapons and highly toxic and corrosive missile fuel, and is still in operation, would be a strong candidate for the production of UDMH. Finally, there has long been a close relationship between the July 27 Factory and nearby July 21 Factory (a.k.a., 7.21 Factory or Kyonghung Explosives Plant), located 1.5 kilometers to the northeast (42.534961° 130.361007°), which produces explosives and chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives (e.g., ammonia, etc.), and maintains an extensive storage facility. Whether this relationship extends to potential UDMH production (e.g., sharing of scientists and technicians, supply of chemicals, provision of storage, etc.) is unclear.

Figure 1. The July 27 Factory and nearby July 1 Factory.

Image includes material Pleaides © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com

Figure 2. Close up of the northern part of the July 27 Factory.

Image includes material Pleaides © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com

Figure 3. Close up of the southern part of the July 27 Factory.

Image includes material Pleaides © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com

Figure 4. Close up of the July 21 Factory.

Image includes material Pleaides © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com

Another strong candidate for potential UDMH production is the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex. This complex and the February 8 Vinalon Complex are sometimes together identified in North Korean publications as the “foundation of the chemical industry.”[14] The Hamhung Fertilizer Complex is located 3 kilometers (39.838730°, 127.630050°) to the southeast of the February 8 Vinalon Complex and dates back to the period of the Japanese occupation. In addition to actually producing fertilizer, it has been involved in defense-related production since the late-1950s and associated with the production of chemical agents. It is composed of numerous independent but interrelated institutes, production lines and areas that support fertilizer production and other chemical production. Over the years, it has undergone numerous rebuilding and modernization programs that have also restructured its production activities. Significantly, a major modernization program began in the early 2000s and is still ongoing.[15]

Figure 5. The Hungnam Fertilizer Complex.

Image © 2017 Google Earth.

The last of the suggested candidate facilities is the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex located in the northwest section of the nation (39.650650°, 125.676436°), 3.8 kilometers northeast of the city of Anju. It produces fertilizer, plastics and a range of chemical products. It has been identified by the North as the nation’s “premier petrochemical processing complex.” A major modernization effort for this facility began in 2005 and, while much of this program was largely completed by 2013, additional work continues to date.

Figure 6. The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex.

Image © 2017 Google Earth.

  1. [1]

    Jeffrey Lewis, “Domestic UDMH Production in the DPRK,” Arms Control Wonk, September 27, 2017, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1204170/domestic-udmh-production-in-the-dprk/.

  2. [2]

    See Mark Fitzpatrick (ed.), The International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment. London: IISS, 2011, pp. 13-14; Jim Mann, “N. Korean Missiles Have Russian Roots, Explosive Theory Suggests,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 2000; “Russian Scientists Said to Help DPRK Develop Missiles,: Dong-A Ilbo, April 1, 1993, p. 1; and Choe Won-ki, “Even the Continental USA Is Now Within Range,” Jungang Ilbo, October 1998. While these reports indicate that a group of engineers and scientists were prevented from leaving Russia for North Korea, different reliable sources clearly state that other Russian engineers and scientists successfully traveled to the country during the 1990s. Interview data.

  3. [3]

    This period is likely being referred to in several classified documents posted on Wikileaks, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08STATE105103_a.html; Russia-U.S. Missile Defense Negotiations, October 10, 2007, Part 2 Of 2: Assessing Qabala, The Iranian Threat, And Czech Radar Capabilities, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07MOSCOW5106_a.html; Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): China’s Record On Controlling Missile-Related Exports, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08STATE105132_a.html; Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): North Korea’s Missile Program, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09STATE103755_a.html; and U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment Talks – December 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10STATE17263_a.html.

  4. [4]

    Michael Elleman, “North Korea’s Hwasong-12 Launch: A Disturbing Development,” 38 North, August 30, 2017, http://www.38north.org/2017/08/melleman083017/; John Schilling, “North Korea’s New Hwasong-12 Missile,” 38 North, May 24, 2017, http://www.38north.org/2017/05/jschilling052417-2/; and Ralph Savelsberg, “A Quick Technical Analysis of the Hwasong-12,” 38 North, May 19, 2017, http://www.38north.org/2017/05/hwasong051917/.

  5. [5]

    Schilling, John. “What is True and Not True About North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM: A Technical Evaluation,” 38 North, July 10, 2017, http://www.38north.org/2017/07/jschilling071017/; and Bermudez, Jr., Joseph S. and Pabian, Frank. “North Korea’s Hwasong-14 Missile Launch Site Identified: The Panghyon Aircraft Factory,” 38 North, July 6, 2017, http://www.38north.org/2017/07/panghyon070617/.

  6. [6]

    Interview data; North Korea Handbook. Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 2003 [English edition published by M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York], pp. 1094-1096; and “DPRK Chemical Industry,” Pukhan, December 1998, pp. 132-143.

  7. [7]

    Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Shield of the Great Leader: The Armed Forces of North Korea. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001 and London: I.B. Taurus, 2001, pp. 48-55.

  8. [8]

    Interview data; North Korea Handbook, pp. 1094-1096; Kim Yong-yun, North Korea’s Organizational Restructuring of Factories and Enterprises: What Does It Mean? Seoul: Institute for National Unification, March 2000, pp. 88-89; and “DPRK Chemical Industry,” pp. 132-143.


  9. [9]

    For example, see: North Korea, CBRN Production Capabilities, Jane’s CBRN Assessments, May 25, 2017, https://janes.ihs.com/; Kim, Kyoung-Soo, “North Korea’s CB Weapons: Threat and Capability,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 69-95; North Korea Handbook, pp. 711-712; “DPRK Factories Suspected of Producing Chemical Agents,” Kitachosen Jinmingun no Zensho, December 17, 1996, p. 127; and “North Korea Major Producer of Biochemical Weapons,” Vantage Point, November 1992, pp. 23-26.

  10. [10]

    The July 27 Factory has occasionally been referred to as the Saebyŏl Chemical Factory (the factory is located in Saebyol-gun [county]). The name of Aoji-ri Chemical Complex is taken from the nearby town of Aoji-ri 3.8 kilometers to the southeast.

  11. [11]

    Yi Pok Ku, Kitachosen Dando Misairu no Saiko Kimitsu, Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 2003, Chapter 1.

  12. [12]

    The P-15 was powered by a rocket engine developed by the Isayev Design Bureau. While the AK-20K/TG-02 propellant is a “…highly toxic and corrosive fuel presents serious handling problems in fueling up and defueling the missile, the propellant mix comprising AK-20K/F oxidizer (80% nitric acid, 20% N2O4 with fluorine or iodine additives) and TG02 fuel (50% xylidine and 50% triethylamine).” Kopp, Dr. Carlo. Soviet/Russian Cruise Missiles, Technical Report APA-TR-2009-0805, Air Power Australia Airpower, August 2009, http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Rus-Cruise-Missiles.html#mozTocId937963.

  13. [13]

    It is also unlikely that Yi was referring to the abortive DF-61 program as this was to be a solid-fuel ballistic missile. Author interview data; Hua Di, “China’s Case: Ballistic Missile Proliferation,” in Potter, William and Jencks, Harlan, eds. The International Missile Bazaar, Westview Press, Boulder, 1994, pp. 163-164; “Journal Outlines Missile, Nuclear Capability,” Xuang Chiao Ching, No. 254, 16 November 1993 pp. 16-19; and Lewis, John Wilson and Hua Di, “China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals,” International Security, Fall 1992, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 5-40.

  14. [14]

    “DPRK Chemical Industry,” pp. 132-143.

  15. [15]

    Interview data; North Korea Handbook, pp. 1094-1096; and “DPRK Chemical Industry,” pp. 132-143.

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