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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is a Senior Editor with the Sino-NK research group. He's lived in South Korea since 2014.
The fundamentally regional nature of tensions surrounding the DPRK’s weapons procurement and development has recently taken a new turn. Ukraine, a country on the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass, has found itself embroiled in a controversy over whether or not it had a major role to play in assisting with the development of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities.
The scandal over the ultimate source of North Korea’s missile technology – primarily over the question of whether it was Russia or Ukraine – follows diplomatic disagreement between Russia and the United States over whether or not the DPRK did indeed launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in July.
By any measure, it is important to verify the actual source of North Korea’s missile technology, if for no other reason than ensuring the viability of international arms control efforts.
The Russia-Ukraine dispute over where North Korea actually obtained its missile capabilities, however, risks complicating regional disarmament efforts. On the one hand, looking at it from a strictly regional northeast Asian perspective, if Russia is indeed found to be the source of North Korea’s missile technology, then it runs the risk of undermining the Kremlin’s credibility as a responsible actor in regional efforts at inducing the DPRK to disarm.
At the same time, however, there is a risk that the regional affairs of northeast Asia could end up spilling into, or even being an active part of, the ongoing geopolitical dispute between Russia and Ukraine following the former’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. As Russia and Ukraine continue to trade accusations and allegations, it becomes increasingly possible that the two countries could become engaged in a broader attempt to discredit one another for their own reasons.
Allegations that Russia has somehow been involved in tech transfers to North Korea are nothing new. Indeed, individual Russians are believed to not only have helped North Korea acquire technology, but to have assisted North Korean scientists and engineers by passing on their technical know-how.
Theodore Postol and Markus Schiller attribute the development of North Korea’s missiles not only to Russian technology transfers but from the extensive mentorship of Russian engineers and scientists who provided the DPRK with expertise during the twilight and after the collapse of the USSR – although these claims have been called into question by Israeli missile defense expert Uzi Rubin.
Allegations that Russia has somehow been involved in tech transfers to North Korea are nothing new
The international community has long been active in initiatives aimed at stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons, underscored by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference at the United Nations, and the preceding Preparatory Committees, where diplomats from all over the world gather to discuss the NPT.
Despite the active participation of countries and bodies that are geographically remote from northeast Asia, and which are otherwise not directly linked to the region, arms proliferation on the Korean peninsula has largely been a regional affair centered on the states of Northeast Asia. Geographically distant Ukraine, however, has unwittingly been dragged into the diplomatic entanglement surrounding arms proliferation in North Korea.
LOOSE NUKES NEAR BUKS
The so-called “loose nukes” in former Soviet territories were an immediate security concern following the collapse of the USSR. Ukraine was one of the independent states to emerge from the ashes of the USSR’s dissolution that also became a de facto nuclear state. Kyiv agreed to sacrifice its nuclear weapons in 1994 under the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum.
Nevertheless, more than 20 years later, concerns that holdovers from Ukraine-based weapons could end up in the hands of those who were not intended to possess them has emerged once again.
Western analysts have debated among themselves the origin of North Korean missile technology, although the debate does not have the political overtones that the discussion between Russia and Ukraine has had. Given the existent geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine, stemming from regional realities in Eastern Europe, however, a major part of the debate over how the DPRK came to possess such advanced missile capabilities risks becoming part of the separate issue of discord between Kyiv and Moscow.
Ukraine is singled out as being the major perpetrator
Russia and Ukraine, both officially and in media, have begun pointing fingers at each other regarding which country is ultimately to blame for providing North Korea with the necessary technology.
Russian officials have seemingly been silent on the issue, perhaps more focused on the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum, as well as being more concerned about diffusing regional tensions.
WAR OF WORDS
Nevertheless, Russian media have struck out at the idea of Ukrainian culpability. In particular, the New York Times article “North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say” has been widely cited in Russian-language media articles on the issue, perhaps as a way to demonstrate that, even in one of the West’s most important media outlets, Ukraine is singled out as being the major perpetrator.
In contrast to Russian silence at the highest levels of government, and the Russian media’s pushback against allegations of complicity in helping to advance North Korea’s missile systems, Ukrainian media have reported that Konstantin Borovoi, of Russia’s opposition “Western Choice” political party accused Russia of supplying North Korea.
Likewise, Ukrainian politician Irina Fris, an ally of President Petro Poroshenko, cited the years 1999-2016 as being the period of North Korean acquisition of technology from Russia. According to Fris, North Korea obtained technology related various Russian-built systems including the Kh-35, the AT-4 and BTR-80.
Until indisputable facts are verified, it seems that Russia and Ukraine are bound to be locked in a war of words. Yet as we have seen from the prior disagreement between Moscow and Washington over the exact classification of the North Korean missile launched on July 4 of this year, different sides of this dispute are not unwilling to present their own sets of data and what they perceive to be indisputable “facts”.
The most important issue in the Russia vs. Ukraine drama concerning North Korea’s technology acquisition, therefore, is that while investigating the facts, the issue of whether Russia or Ukraine is the origin of North Korea’s missile technology should not evolve into an appendage of the greater Russia-Ukraine discord.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons