Yet another flow-forming machine has appeared on North Korean television. (Here are the earlier ones.) This one is shown being exhibited to Kim Jong-il, late in his life by the look of him.
If you’re coming late to this story, a flow-forming machine (or flow-forming lathe) is a specialized machine tool. It has a handful of uses, but among them is forming the maraging-steel rotors that experts believe are used in North Korea’s gas centrifuges. Since gas centrifuges are used to enrich uranium, that makes flow-forming technology pretty interesting in these parts.
It’s unclear where this display took place; other than the floor, the location is obscured by a tent of translucent plastic sheeting. Was it placed there to shield the machine from onlookers? To shield the location from the camera accompanying Kim Jong-il? To keep the machine clean or help regulate its temperature during operation? Or perhaps some other reason? It’s hard to say.
Above, we see KJI in front of a control panel, gazing at something while an official gives an explanation. Now, here’s what he was gazing at:
This machine appears similar to the one Kim Jong-un viewed in 2013, but is not identical.
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The presence of a variety of flow-forming machines inside North Korea is no longer any kind of news. Scott Kemp identified one shown to Kim Jong-il at the Kusong Machine Tool Plant in September 2006, and another shown to Kim Jong-un at the Kanggye “Tractor Factory” in June 2013. Jeffrey Lewis and Amber Lee put this development in the context of North Korea’s efforts to produce CNC machine tools at home. Yours truly identified at least three generations of flow-forming machines inside North Korea. David Albright and Olli Heinonen confirmed the identification, while observing that we don’t know where all of the machines were made. (I continue to suspect that the machine shown at Kusong may have been a prototype produced there. Of course, when it comes to making centrifuge rotors, where the flow-forming machines might have been built is beside the point.)
The bottom line remains the same: despite the best efforts of the international community, North Korea has gained access to some very interesting, sensitive technology. We knew that already, but now perhaps we know it just a little moreso.