U.S. grows suspicious about Ukraine illegally supplying rocket engines to North Korea, which make intercontinental ballistic missile able to reach the United States. It is assumed that DPRK purchased the powerful rocket engines via the black-market purchases – the engines were allegedly produced on the Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia’s missile program. However, Ukraine denies the presumption.
One of the most popular and the earliest U.S. daily The New York Times published an article “North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say” on August 14.
Referring to the new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and American intelligence agencies, the NYT notes that “North Korea’s success in testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears able to reach the United States was made possible by black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia’s missile program”.
“The studies may solve the mystery of how North Korea began succeeding so suddenly after a string of fiery missile failures, some of which may have been caused by American sabotage of its supply chains and cyberattacks on its launches. After those failures, the North changed designs and suppliers in the past two years, according to a new study by Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies,” the newspaper writes.
The NYT underlines that the U.S. President Donald Trump “has singled out only China as the North’s main source of economic and technological support. He has never blamed Ukraine or Russia, though his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, made an oblique reference to both China and Russia as the nation’s “principal economic enablers” after the North’s most recent ICBM launch last month.”
Analysts who studied photographs of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, inspecting the new rocket motors concluded that they derive from RD-250 designs that once powered the Soviet Union’s missile fleet. “The engines were so powerful that a single missile could hurl 10 thermonuclear warheads between continents,” stresses the newspaper.
According to American experts, those engines were being produced by only a few former Soviet sites. Government investigators and experts have focused their inquiries on a missile factory in Dnipro, Ukraine, on the edge of the territory where Russia is fighting a low-level war to break off part of Ukraine. During the Cold War, the factory made the deadliest missiles in the Soviet arsenal, including the giant SS-18. It remained one of Russia’s primary producers of missiles even after Ukraine gained independence,” reads the article.
But that it is noted that since Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was removed from power in 2014, the state-owned factory, known as Yuzhmash, has fallen on hard times. The Russians canceled upgrades of their nuclear fleet. The factory is underused, awash in unpaid bills and low morale. Experts believe it is the most likely source of the engines that in July powered the two ICBM tests, which were the first to suggest that North Korea has the range, if not necessarily the accuracy or warhead technology, to threaten American cities.
“It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine — probably illicitly,” Mr. Elleman said in an interview. “The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried.”
Bolstering his conclusion, he added, was a finding by United Nations investigators that North Korea tried six years ago to steal missile secrets from the Ukrainian complex. Two North Koreans were caught, and a U.N. report said the information they tried to steal was focused on advanced “missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems.”
The experts acknowledge that the “new missiles are based on a technology so complex that it would have been impossible for the North Koreans to have switched gears so quickly themselves.” They apparently fired up the new engine for the first time in September — meaning that it took only 10 months to go from that basic milestone to firing an ICBM, a short time unless they were able to buy designs, hardware and expertise on the black market.
It is also added that the White House had no comment when asked about the intelligence assessments., but there are announcements by other parties.
Thus. last month, Yuzhmash denied reports that the factory was struggling for survival and selling its technologies abroad, in particular to China. Its website says the company does not, has not and will not participate in “the transfer of potentially dangerous technologies outside Ukraine.”
It still remains under wraps how the engines got into the DPRK. However Elleman does not rule out that “missile enterprise, Energomash, which has strong ties to the Ukrainian complex, had a role in the transfer of the RD-250 engine technology to North Korea.” The expert said leftover RD-250 engines might also be stored in Russian warehouses.
“But the fact that the powerful engines did get to North Korea, despite a raft of United Nations sanctions, suggests a broad intelligence failure involving the many nations that monitor Pyongyang,” reads the article.
Kyiv reacted on the article in the American newspaper immediately.
“This information has no grounds, it's provocative by its content, and most likely provoked by Russian secret services to cover their own crimes,” said Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov.
Ukraine always fulfills its obligations by international agreements and that’s why Ukrainian defense and aerospace complexes did not supply weapons and military technology to North Korea, he stressed.
“Ukraine has never supplied missile engines and any missile technologies to North Korea. We believe that this anti-Ukrainian campaign was provoked by Russian special services to cover their participation in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” he said.
At the same time, Turchynov added that Kyiv government views North Korea as “totalitarian, dangerous and unpredictable, and supports all sanctions against this country.”
In its turn, Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy explained how the information published can be related to Russian special services. In particular, Deputy Minister of Information Policy Dmitry Zolotukhin said on air of 112 Ukraine that the IISS expert Elleman, referred to by NYT in the article, had previously worked as the head of the program to reduce missile weapons in Russia so he worked with the FSB.
"I have experience in the field of expert control, including in Ukraine, and I know that such delegations, which really cooperate with the governments of countries to reduce, non-proliferation of missile, nuclear weapons, directly communicate with representatives of the Security Council, the relevant Russian Security Council. This institution could not have operated in Russia without cooperating with representatives of Russian security sector, and accordingly, they are the experts from the Security Council and the FSB," he explained.
State enterprise Yuzhmash named after Makarov also commented on the NYT article.
Facts stated in the article are not true. In particular, Yuzhmash doesn’t manufacture missiles for Russia, nor does it deliver missiles, their parts, and assembly units to this country, says the statement of the enterprise.
Moreover, the enterprise noted that the assumption of article authors and the expert cited by them regarding the possible connection of Ukraine to development of missile technologies of DPRK are not grounded.
“Yuzhmash has never had and does not have anything to do with North Korean missile programs of space or defense. In the years of Ukraine's independence missiles and missile complexes of military use have not been and are not being produced by Yuzhmash. The only serial engine, which has been sent for export in the recent years (RD-843 to Italy for the European carrier rocket "Vega"), has been designed to launch and operate in the open space and by its characteristics (including the force of traction) is not suitable for use in ballistic missiles for military purpose,” the message says.
It is also noted that Yuzhmash as a state enterprise fully abides to the requirements of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), of which Ukraine is a cosignatory since 1998 (de facto since 1995).
Yuzhmash expressed regret over the "provocative article based on incompetent "expert opinion" by NYT and regarding its wide spread by media.
"Ukraine's hand" – was it there in the report?
It is worthy of note that the report by Michael Elleman, the expert of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, does not contain the avowry that the DPRK received the engines RD-250 directly from the government of Ukraine or Ukrainian manufacturer.
“Available evidence clearly indicates that the LPE (liquid-propellant engine – ed.) is based on the Soviet RD-250 family of engines, and has been modified to operate as the boosting force for the Hwasong-12 and -14. An unknown number of these engines were probably acquired though illicit channels operating in Russia and/or Ukraine,” reads the original report.
Michael Elleman also said that in his interview to the North Press.
"We’re not quite sure where the engine came from. It’s highly unlikely that it was indigenously designed, developed and produced (in the DPRK, - ed.). My working hypothesis at this point, given the performance of the engine, its appearance, it likely is derived from an old Russian engine called the RD-250. Where they sourced it, it’s unclear. It could have come from Ukraine because there’s a number of these engines used in space launch vehicles, developed in Ukraine. It could have come from Russia, where it was originally designed and produced," the expert said.
"What is important here is it comes from a different manufacturer than all the other engines that we’ve seen," stressed Elleman.
But the spies were real
It should be noted that the metioned detention of the two citizens of North Korea did happen in Ukraine – Ryu Songchel and Li Tkhekil were sentenced for espionage against Ukraine on May 28, 2012.
The State Security Service charged them of the attempt to get access to classified information. Specifically, the investigation found that North Korean citizens entered Ukraine by car through Belarus and arrived in Dnepropetrovsk on July 27. Their aim was to make photos of the secret documents, provided by the Yuzhne Design Engineering Bureau for monetary reward. Later the detained persons stated that they were the employees of the DPRK’s commercial consulate in Belarus and that their activity beared relation to solving problems between the countries in the sphere of science and engineering. Among other responsibilities, they were obliged to organize workshops for the experts form the DPRK in various issues of rocket and missile engineering.
According to the investigation, Songchel and Tkhekil have earlier visited Ukraine and Russia. When contacting the employees of the Ukrainian companies, the North Koreans have repeatedly searched for the information on missile technology applying to the Ukrainian scientists to lecture “the citizens of North Korea”.
They specified the topics of their interest in the course of the talks – ballistic missiles, missile systems, missile construction, space-based propulsion, solar array deployment, quick emptying of fuel tanks, missile launching canister, cartridge pressure accumulator, as well as military state industry standards.
North Koreans were also interested in engines for the intercontinental ballistic missile RT-22 (NATO reporting name SS-22 Scaleboard).
After the employees of the Yuzhne Design Engineering Bureau signaled to the Security Service of Ukraine on their contact with North Koreans, the law enforcement officers developed a fake or “controlled” operation on delivery of the documents. The meeting was set in one of the Dnepropetrovsk garages, where they were caught in the act – they were making photos of the classified materials with technical drawings and scientific research papers on new missile systems technologies, systems of missile fuel delivery and other innovations.
Both detainees were sentenced to eight years in prison.
It was noted then that the classified data, the North Korean were hunting for, could expand effective range of North Korean nuclear missiles up to the United States of America.