Kim is believed to keep the men close so as to speed up his missile project
Former air force general Ri Pyong Chol, veteran rocket scientist Kim Jong Sik, and Jang Chang Ha, the head of a North Korean weapons development and procurement centre, are known by Western security and intelligence agencies to be the top figures in Kim Jong-un’s accelerating weapons project.
The three, shown with the North Korean dictator in pictures and TV footage, are said to be Kim’s favourites due to the fact they behave in a much more relaxed fashion in his presence compared to other senior Pyongyang figures.
And experts have suggested Kim’s close relationship with the three men allows him to speed up the development of the North Korea’s missile capabilities.
An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South and now runs a think tank in Seoul, said: “Rather than going through bureaucrats, Kim Jong-un is keeping these technocrats right by his side, so that he can contact them directly and urge them to move fast.
“It reflects his urgency about missile development.”
Ri is believed to be the “big potato” of the three
Kim Jong Sik and Jang are not from elite families, unlike many other senior figures in North Korea’s ruling class, according to North Korean leadership experts.
While Ri comes from a better-regarded school, he and the other two were hand-picked by the North Korean leader himself.
And according to experts, Ri is the most prominent of the three.
Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership, said: “The big potato in that trio of people is Ri Pyong Chol. He’s been around since before Kim Jong-un was even talked about with any seriousness.”
Born in 1948, Ri was partly educated in Russia and promoted during Kim Jong-un’s rise to prominence in the late 2000s.
Kim Jin Moo, an expert on North Korea’s elite, said: “Ri looks like the party’s guy in the missile programme.”
Kim Jong Sik is the rocket scientist of the trio, and started his career as a civilian aeronautics technician.
After helping develop North Korea’s first successful rocket launch in 2012, Kim Jong Sik shot up the ranks, according to Mr Madden.
Mr Madden said: “When that thing went off and entered into a lower earth orbit, he got credit for that.
The trio are believed to be much more relaxed around the tyrant
“The nuclear and missile guys under Kim Jong Un are getting their jobs based on merit.”
Of the three men, the least is known about Jang Chang Ha.
Jang is the president of the Academy of National Defence Science, which is in charge of the country’s research and development of advanced weapons systems.
The group was blacklisted by the US in 2012 over fears it was working on the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Mr Madden said: “These are the men bringing North Korea’s missile programme into the 21st Century.”