Washington (AFP) – North Korea’s recent rapid progress in developing a long-range missile appears to have come after it refurbished rocket engines procured from a plant in the former Soviet Union, according to an expert report published Monday.
According to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the missiles used in recent North Korean tests were based on the RD-250 engine once made at a plant in what is now an independent Ukraine.
These could have been bought from corrupt workers at arsenals in what are now the rival states of Russia and Ukraine and smuggled to North Korea by criminal networks — at some point between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Ukraine’s current crisis.
North Korea has been testing missile technology since procuring a Soviet-designed Scud in the 1970s, but was until recently struggling to construct a working intercontinental missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to US targets.
The latest IISS report and others suggest that Kim Jong-Un’s regime has abandoned attempts to modify the Russian-built OKB-456 and has now switched to the once Ukrainian-made RD-250 — with spectacular and ominous results.
During the Soviet era, the RD-250 was produced at the Yuzhnoye design bureau’s Yuzhmash plant in Dnipro, a city that is today in Kiev government-held central Ukraine, around 150 kilometers (80 miles) from an active frontline held by Russian-backed separatists.
Ukraine reacted angrily to The New York Times’ account of the IISS report — which emphasized the Ukrainian origin of the technology — insisting that Yuzhmash has not produced military rockets since Ukraine’s independence and has no links to North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
But the report itself does not contradict this, suggesting instead that the missile motors may have remained in storage, whether in what is now the Russian Federation or in independent Ukraine, after the Soviet Union broke up.
“A small team of disgruntled employees or underpaid guards at any one of the storage sites… could be enticed to steal a few dozen engines by one of the many illicit arms dealers, criminal networks, or transnational smugglers operating in the former Soviet Union,” it said.
“The engines (less than two meters tall and one meter wide) can be flown or, more likely, transported by train through Russia to North Korea.”
The report includes pictures issued by Kim’s regime which appear to show similarities between the latest missiles to be tested and the RD-250 design for a liquid-fuelled rocket.
“This is not to suggest that the Ukrainian government was involved, and not necessarily Yuzhnoye executives,” Elleman wrote in the IISS report.
“Workers at Yuzhnoye facilities in Dnipropetrovsk and Pavlograd were likely the first ones to suffer the consequences of the economic misfortunes, leaving them susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous traders, arms dealers and transnational criminals operating in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.”
– ‘Ominous questions’ –
The Yuzhmash plant’s marketing department said the company “has never before and does not have anything to do with North Korean missile programs of a space or defense nature.”
And Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, seized on the report to attack Moscow, saying: “We believe this anti-Ukrainian campaign was provoked by Russian special services to cover their participation in North Korean nuclear and missile programs.”
As the controversy erupted, Elleman took to Twitter to clarify his conclusions.
“Let me be clear about DPRK’s source of ICBM engine: Yuzhnoye is one of several possible sources, there are other potentials in Russia,” he wrote, adding that he does not believe the current Kiev government condoned or even knew about the transfer.
And he noted — as had his original report — that Ukraine had in fact arrested two suspected North Korean agents in July 2012 as they tried to steal secrets from the Yuzhnoye design bureau in Dnipro.
Other outside experts have backed the conclusion that the latest round of North Korean missile tests, which have sharply raised tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, involved rockets using the RD-250 design.
Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a report suggesting the switch to Yuzhnoye’s design over another Soviet-era model that had failed in previous North Korean tests was cause for concern.
This, the academic authors said, “raises new and potentially ominous questions about the variety and extent to which Soviet rocket motors might have been obtained by North Korea during the collapse of the Soviet Union.”