One of the puzzles surrounding the recent spate of triumphant North Korean missile launches has been how the tests suddenly began to succeed after a series of very dramatic failures—especially in light of earlier, successful, American sabotage and cyberattacks of North Korean supply chains and rocket launches. “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,” says the New York Times.
It turns out that after the series of failures of its intermediate-range Musudan missiles, the North managed to flat-out purchase outright some existing, improved, bigger, more sophisticated, Russian-designed RD-250 rocket engines on the black market, according to a paper by Michael Elleman published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The engines most likely came from an impoverished, underused Ukrainian missile-building facility known as Yuzhmash, a complex with long ties to Russia’s missile program that has fallen on hard times. (How the RD-250 rocket motors traveled at least 4,500 miles from this one factory in Ukraine to launch pads in North Korea without being detected by any intelligence agency is still a mystery.)
If the North Koreans did indeed take advantage of the chaos of post-revolutionary Ukraine to get hold of the motors, that would tie in with the North’s previous laser-like focus on Ukraine: Six years ago, North Korea had sent two agents to try to steal missile secrets from the same Ukrainian complex. They were caught, and a subsequent UN investigation at the time found that the agents had tried to steal “missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ finding that the new rockets were likely RD-250s fits in with reports from elsewhere, such as analysts in Germany, and an August 11 analysis published here in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The Times article ends by noting: “The emerging clues suggest not only new threats from North Korea, analysts say, but new dangers of global missile proliferation because the Ukrainian factory remains financially beleaguered. It now makes trolley buses and tractors, while seeking new rocket contracts to help regain some of its past glory.”