No, Ukraine Isn’t Selling Missile Engines to North Korea
15 August, 2017
Photo credit: EPA/KCNA

A recent report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank appears to suggest that Ukraine could be involved in providing intercontinental ballistic missile engines to North Korea. And a subsequent article by the New York Times implies that the United States’ intelligence agencies agree with these conclusions.

The report, written by non-proliferation expert Michael Elleman, has sparked significant controversy in Ukraine, with defense firms and politicians sharply denying any connection with the so-called “hermit kingdom.” But while the report’s claim initially seems shocking, on closer inspection, it is significantly more measured than it appears.

Elleman never implies that the Ukrainian authorities are selling rocket engines to Pyongyang. Rather, he suggests engines smuggled out of Ukraine or Russia were sold to North Korea on the black market. And other experts significantly disagree with these conclusions.

Hromadske explains what exactly is in this report, “The secret to North Korea’s ICBM success,” how Elleman reached his conclusions, and what his colleagues think.

Who is Michael Elleman?

Michael Elleman is a specialist on ballistic missiles at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). His report became the basis for a New York Times article suggesting that North Korea is utilizing rocket engines from the Ukrainian defense firm Yuzhmash (also known as “Pivdenmash” in Ukrainian) in its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Previously, from 1995 to 2001, Elleman headed the U.S. State Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program in Russia, which helped to dismantle obsolete long-range missiles.

What is this missile engine?

Elleman’s report suggests North Korea received a liquid fuel engine from a foreign source. Pyongyang subsequently used the engine to launch its Hwasong-12 and -14 missiles. Experts who analyzed the available data on the engine’s function — as well as the actual missile test in January — came to the conclusion that the engine was based on technology used in the Soviet RD-250 engine.

North Korea acquired this technology in the past two years. In Elleman’s opinion, Pyongyang could not possibly develop this engine independently in such a short time period.

Whose technology is it, anyways?

The engines tested by North Korea do not resemble any engine produced by the United States, France, China, Japan, India, or Iran. And none of these countries produces a rocket that uses fuel accumulation and generates the kind of thrust demonstrated by the Hwasong-12 and -14.

“This leaves the former Soviet Union as the most likely source,” Elleman writes.

Analyzing liquid fuel missiles produced by the Soviet Union, Elleman concludes through process of elimination that the engine used was a RD-250. However, the engine was modified, he writes, as the RD-250 uses two combustion chambers, while the North Korean Hwasong-12 and -14 used only one. The North Korean authorities also openly claimed to have used a new engine design for the missile test.

Photo credit:  EPA/KCNA

Could the North Koreans modify the engine?

Here’s how Elleman answers this question in the report:

“Pyongyang’s engineers would have been hard pressed to make the modifications themselves. Rather, the technical skills needed to modify the existing RD-250 turbopump, or fashioning a new one capable of feeding propellant to a single chamber would reside with experts with a rich history of working with the RD-250. Such expertise is available at Russia’s Energomash concern and Ukraine’s KB Yuzhnoye. One has to conclude that the modified engines were made in those factories.

“The alternative hypothesis, that Russian/Ukraine engineers were employed in North Korea is less likely, given the absence of any known production facility in North Korea for such engines. In addition, Western experts who visited KB Yuzhnoye Ukraine within the past year told the author that a single-chamber version was on display at a nearby university and that a local engineer boasted about producing it.”

Why would Yuzhmash’s design office, Yuzhnoye, help North Korea?

The Yuzhnoye (or Pivdenne in Ukrainian) design office’s “repeated attempts to market the rocket and related technologies to other potential customers, including Boeing and Brazil, yielded little,” Elleman writes. “The once vaunted Yuzhnoye design office has been near financial collapse since roughly 2015.”

What does Yuzhmash say about it?

Yuzhmash categorically denies any connection to the North Korean missiles.

“The assumptions of the authors of the publication and the “expert” they quoted regarding Ukraine’s possible connection to [North Korea’s] progress in developing missile technology has no relation to reality,” the company said in an exceedingly formal statement.

“Yuzhmash has never before had and still has no connection to the North Korean cosmic or defense missile programs. Since Ukraine’s independence, military missiles and missile systems have not been produced by Yuzhmash. The only serial engine shipped in recent years for export (the RD-843 [sold] to Italy for the European Vega carrier) is designed to launch and operate in outer space, and according to its characteristics (including thrust power) is not suitable for use in military ballistic missiles.”  

Photo credit:  EPA/KCNA

How could the engines end up in North Korea?

Elleman writes that the total quantity of RD-250 engines manufactured in Russia and Ukraine is unknown, but is likely is in the hundreds, “if not more.” Spare parts for these engines are stored in both Russia and Ukraine.

“[F]acilities warehousing the obsolete LPEs are probably loosely guarded,” he writes. “A small team of disgruntled employees or underpaid guards at any one of the storage sites, and with access to the LPEs, 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. The engines (less than two metres tall and one metre wide) can be flown or, more likely, transported by train through Russia to North Korea.”

Why does Elleman believe Ukraine was somehow connected?

Besides the similarities between the North Korean missile engine and Yuzhmash-produced models, Elleman notes that North Korean agents seeking missile technology have previously operated in Ukraine. In 2012, two North Korean citizens were arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison in Ukraine for attempting to buy missile equipment from the Yuzhnoye design office.

What do other military experts think?

At least two nonproliferation experts have expressed doubts about Elleman’s report. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, noted on Twitter that the United States imposed sanctions on Iranian officials in January 2017 for helping Pyongyang develope rocket engines. North Korea subsequently used these engines in missile tests in September 2016.

And Joshua Pollack, the editor of the The Nonproliferation Review journal, also doubts Elleman’s conclusions. He suggests Ukraine had been cautious to prevent espionage.

In an email to Hromadske, Pollack emphasized that North Korea has its own missile research, design, and production complexes. He stressed that Pyongyang’s missiles clearly have “Soviet heritage,” but that doesn’t mean they came from post-Soviet countries.

"I don't believe any of these engines came from Yuzhmash or anywhere else,” Pollack said. “Rather, the North Koreans sought out relevant design information, probably over a period of many years, and finally pieced together enough to make their own version, with help from Iran."

/By Matthew Kupfer