Why is the DPRK in love with CNC?

Computer Numerical Control has been at the heart of North Korea’s domestic public relations campaign in the lead-up to 2012, its self-proclaimed marker year for becoming a “Great and Prosperous Nation”. This statement may inspire you to ask, “why?” Or probably even before that, “what”? CNC is not a sexy technology. Bullet trains capture the imagination: that journeys that once took a whole day can now be completed between breakfast and lunch inspires awe. Ballistic missiles do, too: what inspires faith in the power of one’s country like the roar of a huge rocket, emblazoned with your flag, as it torches the take-off pad and punctures the clouds?

But CNC? Computer Numerical Control is essentially the use of computers to control machine tools so they can make cuts and bore holes more precisely than can humans. The technology has its roots in the 1950’s, when MIT and the US Air Force developed instructions on tape to guide machine-cutting. In the early 1970’s as the microprocessor began to proliferate it became computerized and driven by hardware. Now software-driven, (so more adaptable and relatively cheap),the technology can be found in instructions that are stored as a program in a micro-computer attached to the machine. The computer also handles much of the control logic of the machine, making it more adaptable than earlier hard-wired controllers and accessible to not only huge production lines, but also small job shops all over the world.

As one CNC company’s website states: “The accuracy of a CNC can be explained this way: take a hair off your head and slice it the long way six times. The sliver you have left is about the margin of error with the machine.” So, okay, that’s pretty cool, but it’s hardly visually exciting. Pervasive and invaluable to modern production lines, yes, but ultimately a technology that usually rouses little emotion. Not so in the DPRK, where pretty much every citizen knows what it is, knows it is good for their country and knows that it is cutting edge stuff.

For almost two years, citizens of North Korea have been exposed to a lengthy campaign extolling the virtues of CNC. For example, there have been repeated hour long broadcasts on North Korea’s lone TV channel, giving pretty dry and technical explanations of how the machines cut, drill and whatnot. The program would not fare well on a multi-channel television system.

The 2011 New Year’s joint editorial also stated that “officials and workers in this sector should steadily improve the level of their technical skills so that they can adeptly operate CNC-based and other modern equipment and meet the scientific and technological requirements in their production and business activities.” (The joint-editorial is probably North Korea's most important public pronouncement, with the three most important newspapers laying out the nation’s plans and goals for the year. It is, as its name suggests, published on January 1st.)

More exciting means of promoting the technology exist, however. The pivot of these pop culture promotions is a popular song which bubbled up sometime late in 2009. It is pop music both in style - as far as North Korea has ‘poppy’ music - and also in terms of distribution. Pretty much every North Korean can at least partly sing along. Like the technology itself, the song is pervasive, from the humble solo-guitar rendition caught in a Pyongyang park by a tourist:

to this massive production in Kim Il Sung Square, celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea:

It is available on karaoke machines nationwide. The song is titled “break through the cutting edge” and the lyrics include reminders that CNC is “an example of self- reliance and strength” and that “the people's pride is high…let's build a science-technology great power”

In 2010, signs that read "CNC - to the world!" popped up around Pyongyang. Longtime observers state that it was the first propaganda billboard in memory that had roman lettering. CNC also gets a mention in the Arirang mass gymnastics spectacular, during the chapter when the country’s modern successes are being lauded. The 20,000 card flippers spell out: “CNC: The Power of Juche Industry”.

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There have even been references to it by synchronized swimmers, who perform a dance or a swim or whatever synchronized swimmers call it during a rendition of “break through the cutting edge.” At one point they collectively spell out CNC with their bodies.

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Why go to all this trouble to lionize machine tooling? It is because the campaign represents the heart of the government's contemporary propaganda push: that all sectors of society are rallying to increase light industry, exports and ultimately, quality of life. Now that the country is powerful enough to defend itself, everyone can focus on economic competitiveness and making products that will sell well abroad.

The company that is tasked with producing and selling CNC is Ryonha, through its subsidiary, Unsan. The company had a booth at the recent International Trade Fair in Rason, held in North Korea’s Special Economic Zone in the far Northeast, bordering Russia and China. Their booth was staffed by a Vice President and – as one might expect - attracted lots of attention from the locals in attendance.

The president claimed annual exports of 30,000,000 euros to Europe, South America and South East Asia. He didn’t have exact details on profits, but mentioned that Unsan imported 10,000,000 euro worth of parts, mostly from Europe, such as control units and electronic relays Siemens and Arno. Their main CNC factory is 40,000 sq. meters and the “biggest in the world” according to the manager. They have two facilities, one in Pyongyang and one in Jagang with 12,000 employees in total. They want to open a factory in Rason, ideally without investors. Prices were said to be: 150,000 EUR for a European made CNC machine but only 52,000 EUR for an equivalent machine made in the DPRK, with the “same quality”.

Unfortunately for Ryonha, it seems to be a subsidiary of the Korea Ryonbong General Corporation, which is under UN sanctions as a WMD proliferator. This no doubt impacts Ryonha’s ability to market itself to customers abroad. Ryonha also doesn’t seem to have a website, which can’t help, either.

Should Ryonha’s parent corporation be taken off the UN’s list of designated proliferators, it will find easier access to a global CNC market that was $6.1 billion in 2007, before the financial crisis hit. The market has contracted since then, as the crisis left a global glut in inventory in 2009, which has taken well into 2011 to clear. The sharply reduced demand, particularly from automakers, has made the CNC market particularly competitive, though a sustained economic recovery would eventually drag the industry back up to pre-crisis levels.

It’s difficult to know what kind of impact Ryonha might have on the global CNC industry, as customers and vendors alike are probably reluctant to trumpet where their machines are made. One of the effects of sanctions has been that companies try to hide their tracks when conducting business with the DPRK, even when the industry is unrelated to sanctioned items. This is sometimes done through an extra layer (or two) of outsourced contracts, or with textiles, sometimes just label-switching. This is tough to do with bigger machines, of course, leaving North Korean CNC machines facing perhaps understandable prejudices.

Its impact on the domestic market will be more significant, of course, reducing the need to spend hard currency on imported CNC machines from China and elsewhere. Perhaps then, this import substitution will allow the DPRK to use that unspent capital on projects that actually benefit the daily lives of its citizens.

It would be a shame to waste such a catchy tune.