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View more articles by Joshua H. Pollack
Joshua H. Pollack
Joshua Pollack is a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.
This Monday greeted North Korea watchers with a one-two punch: an analysis by IISS Senior Fellow for Missile Defence Michael Elleman, plus a companion article in the New York Times, positing a connection between North Korea’s new and powerful rocket engines and Ukraine’s space-launch industry.
The gist of Elleman’s thesis was that engines powering both North Korea’s Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs, and the first stage of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, could not have been produced in North Korea.
He judged them, instead, to be modified RD-250 engines, originally designed and built in the Soviet Union, and “probably acquired through illicit channels operating in Russia and/or Ukraine.” This transfer would have taken place recently, in response to repeated failures of another rocket technology, the engine associated with the Musudan missile, in 2016.
Elleman also entertained the possibility that employees at the Yuzhnoye company in Ukraine might have become “susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous traders, arms dealers and transnational criminals operating in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere,” perhaps leading to the transfer of a “few dozen” engines from storage sites.
William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times, for their part, went still further, claiming that classified U.S. intelligence assessments indicated that the engines had been acquired on the black market. They even reported that unspecified U.S. government “investigators and experts” had identified Ukraine’s Yuzhmash rocket engine plant as “probably” the source of the engines.
The responses were harsh and swift. Both Yuzhnoye, which designs rocket engines, and Yuzhmash, which builds them, are Ukrainian state enterprises. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council quickly issued a strong denial. (It added that Monday’s reports sprang from an “anti-Ukrainian campaign” instigated by Russia’s intelligence services—a baseless, distasteful, and wholly unnecessary claim.)
Yuzhmash issued its own furious rejoinder, as did Yuzhnoye. Using a lighter touch, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sarcastically thanked the Times “for the attention it has drawn to Ukraine’s rocket and space industry in a gracious although not exactly satisfactory manner.”
That wasn’t all. The U.S. intelligence community, which usually keeps mum, signaled its own unhappiness with the New York Times, telling the PBS NewsHour, Reuters, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times that the story was flat wrong.
“We have intelligence to suggest that North Korea is not reliant on imports of engines,” an official told reporters. “Instead, we judge they have the ability to produce the engines themselves.”
The Diplomat carried a similar report, while suggesting that the new North Korean engines were nevertheless considered probable “variants” of the Soviet RD-250.
For a time, North Korea’s willingness to sell weapons to virtually anyone made it the world’s leading missile supplier
The basis for the intelligence community’s assessment has not been shared, but it is still possible to sketch out how North Korea makes its liquid-fueled rocket engines using open sources. It also is apparent why North Korea’s liquid-fueled engines have a Soviet technological heritage.
To summarize, North Korea is believed to have received Soviet-made Scud missiles from Egypt in the late 1970s. Drawing on an earlier period of training and cooperation with China, North Korean specialists “reverse-engineered” the Scuds. The North Korean munitions industry was producing its own copies by the mid-1980s. Exports to Iran started a few years later, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, in exchange for oil supplies.
North Korea’s next steps were to develop a scaled-up, medium-range version of the Scud, which Western analysts call the Rodong, along with a variety of Scud types with extended ranges.
The Rodong was flight-tested in North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran in the 1990s, with mixed results early on. Other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Syria, also bought North Korean Scuds. For a time, North Korea’s willingness to sell weapons to virtually anyone made it the world’s leading missile supplier.
In the following years, the North Koreans appear to have provided training and equipment for missile production in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and possibly also Myanmar, helping these customers establish their own missile factories. In 1999, Indian authorities searched a North Korean vessel in port, discovering a substantial amount of Scud missile production equipment and materials bound for Libya.
The process of acquiring and absorbing foreign technologies was not entirely smooth
The North Koreans also began combining their rocket engines into new configurations. In 1998, North Korea flew its first space launcher, called the Taepodong-1 in the West. It used a Rodong for a first stage and a Scud for the second stage, topped with a small solid-fueled third stage. The so-called Taepodong-2 first flew in 2006, resulting in a spectacular failure.
It underwent further development and improvements, eventually becoming a workable launcher. Its first stage consists of a cluster of four Rodong engines, as well as four small steering engines, or “verniers.” South Korea’s Navy retrieved the remnants of these first-stage engines from the sea after successful launches in 2012 and 2016.
After careful examination, the South Koreans informed the United Nations that the only foreign-made components in the engines were salvaged ball bearings from Soviet missiles. A handful of non-engine components in the first stage were also found to have been imported, but by and large, the rocket was an indigenous product.
The process of acquiring and absorbing foreign technologies was not entirely smooth. North Korea has poured substantial resources into national defense. It has long had its own research institutions and industrial facilities, and was able to train some of its scientists in the Soviet Union and other communist countries during the Cold War.
But its leadership came to the conclusion that the country had hobbled its own progress through an excessively strict interpretation of the ideology of self-reliance. In 1985, Kim Jong Il, the designated heir, berated senior Korean Workers’ Party officials on this point, declaring: “In order to develop science and technology quickly you should introduce advanced science and technology from abroad.”
“At present,” he said, “our officials hesitate to introduce advanced science and technology because they are of the opinion that their introduction will go against the requirement of developing Juche-orientated science and technology… This has forced quite a few people returning from abroad to withdraw their suggestion of importing modern plant or machines and equipment based on the latest science and technology which they have seen in the foreign country and to say that nothing special is available.”
Instead, Kim urged Party leaders to aggressively import foreign manufacturing equipment, encourage scientific exchanges, and develop systematic plans for advancing North Korea’s own scientific and technical capabilities.
These directives set the stage for aggressive recruitment of Soviet missile specialists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet economy and state, scientists and engineers in the isolated nuclear and missile “cities” were in desperate straits, becoming vulnerable to enticements from abroad.
The leadership came to the conclusion that the country had hobbled its own progress through an excessively strict interpretation of the ideology of self-reliance
In the early 1990s, looking to strengthen ties with a thriving South Korea, Russia began to publicize the expulsion of North Korean diplomats for their activities in this field. In one infamous episode in October 1992, they even stopped a large group of missile experts from Russia’s Makayev Design Bureau from boarding a flight from Moscow to Pyongyang.
Despite these setbacks, the North Koreans appear to have scored major gains in design information and know-how from this period. Not only did their space and missile programs make advances in the 1990s, but in the following decades, they began to introduce more advanced Soviet-origin missile technologies than the 1950s-era Scuds.
A copy of the engine from the 1970s-era Soviet R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missile powered North Korea’s new intermediate-range ballistic missile, called the Musudan in the West. But quality control problems emerged. When the Musudan was finally flight-tested in 2016, it failed repeatedly, succeeding fully just once.
A NEW ENGINE
Following this pattern, North Korea’s newest family of engines did not appear overnight. In November 2013, the Washington Free Beacon reported that North Korea was developing a new, heavy liquid-fueled engine with help from Iran’s Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, or SHIG, describing it as an “80 ton” engine—a measure of the thrust it produces.
In January 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a press release confirming the outlines of this account by imposing sanctions on specific SHIG officials for their involvement in the development of the new North Korean engine.
That September, the North Koreans gave the world a glimpse of the new engine in a “static” test on the ground, describing it as the basis of a new heavy space launcher—a program that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un first mentioned in public in April 2012.
As Elleman and other observers have noted, the engine seen in September 2016 resembles one-half of the two-chamber Soviet RD-250 engine. The technological debts owed by North Korea’s space and missile program to its Cold War-era Soviet predecessor run deep, and the “80-ton” engine appears to be no exception.
How much of a relationship the engine used in the single stage of the Hwasong-12 and the first stage of the Hwasong-14 have to the “80-ton” engine is not entirely clear. Some basic features appear to be the same, but this new engine, first unveiled by the North Koreans in March 2017, is noticeably different in other respects.
Also unclear is whether North Korea acquired any RD-250 design information in the bonanza years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but only recently became able to reproduce it successfully, with help from Iranian specialists.
It is also possible that they managed to acquire crucial data more recently. There is at least one indication of the continued pursuit of up-to-date foreign design information.
A UN report issued in 2013 provides the most detailed available account of an episode at the Yuzhnoye Design Office in 2011. Two North Korean officials stationed in Belarus went to Ukraine, where they sought to gain access to photographs of secret documents on advanced rocket designs held at Yuzhnoye. The Ukrainian authorities caught them and tried them, sentencing them to eight years’ imprisonment in 2012.
The technological debts owed by North Korea’s space and missile program to its Cold War-era Soviet predecessor run deep
The IISS report mangles this incident, describing it not as an attempt to get pictures of secret documents containing design information, but as “an attempt to procure missile hardware.” Similarly, it describes North Korean activities in the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s not in terms of recruitment of specialists, but as an “illicit network that funneled Scud, Rodong and R-27 (Musudan) hardware to North Korea.”
This claim reflects an opinion held by some rocketry experts that the Rodong must have secretly been developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, mass-produced, and finally exported to North Korea in the 1990s, all without prior detection.
This assumption that North Korea—contrary to the understanding of most North Korea specialists—has never learned to build rocket engines, but has instead had a free hand to import them at various times, without detection by foreign intelligence agencies—is the source of confusion that underpins this week’s IISS report and the accompanying the New York Times article.
It leads to a conclusion that the new engines must come from somewhere else, so where else but Russia or Ukraine, where similar engines were designed and built? It is this line of reasoning, not any nefarious influence from Moscow, that led to Elleman’s highly doubtful conclusion that North Korea’s new March 2017 engine must have been made either by Yuzhmash or its Russian counterpart, Energomash.
If one adheres to the view that North Korea can only be an importer, then each new development naturally must involve an exporter.
RARE GLIMPSES OF DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENT
Contrary to the IISS report’s assertion that no facilities for producing large liquid-fueled engines are known to exist in North Korea, a certain amount of information is already available about where North Korea makes missiles. Defectors who left the country during the famine of the mid-to-late 1990s included people with knowledge of the missile program.
Two notable accounts that are available to the public were offered in testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in October 1997. Ko Young Hwan, a former diplomat, described the training and employment of his brother as a designer of rocket engines for ballistic missiles, before being transferred to a program for the development of anti-ship missiles.
Choi Ju Hwal, a former colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who had served in a military trading company, named four specific facilities as involved in missile production, including the “Number 125 Factory” on the outskirts of Pyongyang. There, he stated, military delegations from Iran and Egypt visited at different times to inspect missile assembly lines.
The Number 125 Factory—also known as the Tae-Sung Machine Plant or the Chamjin Missile Factory—also received a senior military delegation from Myanmar (Burma) in November 2008. The delegation’s trip report, illustrated with photographs, was later leaked to an opposition group, which translated it and published it online.
A certain amount of information is already available about where North Korea makes missiles
On November 28, 2008, according to the report, “from 09:05 until 10:10 local time, the group went to Surface to Surface Missile (SCUD Missile) Factory and was welcomed by the Director Kim Su Gil. The group observed in detail how missiles were produced in the factory.”
The factory, it continued, “is located in a suburb in Pyongyang. It produces SCUD missiles. The component producing lines are kept in the underground tunnel. There are also above-ground factory where missile engines are assembled, where missile bodies are produced and assembled, and where complete missiles are assembled. In the factories that produce complete missiles, there are places that produce and assemble SCUD-D and SCUD-E. While SCUD-D can shoot a target up to 700 kilometers away, SCUD-E [Rodong] can shoot up to 1,500 kilometers, and SCUD-F [Musudan] can shoot up to 3,000 kilometers.”
An analysis of satellite photographs of the facility and nearby entrances to underground facilities was published by Joseph Bermudez in 2011.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s third-generation leader, has made a series of visits to the Chamjin plant. He appeared there at least twice in March 2016. On the first occasion, he observed a ground test of a new heat shield for missile reentry. The second time was his infamous photo opportunity with a variety of missiles, as well as what was described as a nuclear warhead.
After the 1991 war with Iraq, international inspectors gained deep insights into the nature of the Iraqi missile program. Iraq’s engineers started with Scud missiles imported from the Soviet Union, and later worked with Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missiles.
To improve or repurpose these weapons, they cut apart airframes and modified them. They did not develop their own robust missile industry. At one point in the late 1990s, they even turned to the North Koreans for new missiles, who ultimately did not deliver any.
North Korea is not Iraq. By the standards of a poor country, it is heavily industrialized, and has long placed a heavy emphasis on military technology and production.
Its people underwent the rigors of famine in the 1990s in no small part because of Kim Jong Il’s decision to throw national resources at developing missiles and space launchers rather than food. From a certain narrow perspective, that gamble has paid off.
North Korea’s missile designers remain decades behind their counterparts in countries like Russia or China, and they continue to lean on the technological legacy of the Soviet Union. But we can be confident that they are hard at work, on both liquid-fueled engines and solid rocket motors.
The new engines of September 2016 and March 2017 are probably not the last they will produce.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Main picture: Prokorea.ru