When the US State Department supported Ukraine domestic forces and nationalist elements to stage a successful and deadly coup against then pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the outcome was supposed to be a nation that is a undisputed US ally and persistent threat, distraction and non-NATO opponent to bordering Russia. Instead, it now appears that it has been Ukraine which was, as the NYT writes, the secret behind the success of North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
Specifically, in a blockbuster report this morning, the NYT alleges that North Korea has been making black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines from a Ukrainian factory citing “expert analysis being published Monday and classified assessments by American intelligence agencies.”
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.
According to the report, analysts who studied photographs of Kim Jong-un, inspecting the new rocket motors concluded that they derive from 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.”
Since the alleged engines have been linked to 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.
However, after the 2014 coup which ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, 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.“
In other words, it is America’s latest Eastern European “ally” that is behind what is rapidly emerging as a potential nuclear threat that can blanket as much as half of the continental US.
“It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine — probably illicitly,” Elleman told the NYT 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.” Investigators now believe that, amid the chaos of post-revolutionary Ukraine, Pyongyang tried again.
Considering Ukraine is a close US ally – just ask John McCain – maybe a phone call to current Ukraine president, oligarch billionaire Poroshenko, should suffice?
To be sure, the factory itself would never admit this stunning allegation: last month, Yuzhmash denied reports that the factory complex 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.”
Making matters worse of the US “allies” in Ukraine, American investigators do not believe that denial, though they say there is no evidence that the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko, who recently visited the White House, had any knowledge or control over what was happening inside the complex.
The obvious implication here is that – if accurate – Ukraine had been working with North Korea for years, well into the administration of Barack Obama, the same president under whom the Ukraine coup was greenlight, which would also suggest that the current North Korean crisis is explicitly a consequence of Obama’s foreign policies.
Which is why we read the following amusing disclaime in the NYT: “How the Russian-designed engines, called the RD-250, got to North Korea is still a mystery.”
Furthermore, Elleman told the NYT that 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. Failure or perhaps just US intel closing its eyes to what Ukraine may be doing through the back door.
The NYT writes that “it is unclear who is responsible for selling the rockets and the design knowledge, and intelligence officials have differing theories about the details. But Mr. Elleman makes a strong circumstantial case that would implicate the deteriorating factory complex and its underemployed engineers. “I feel for those guys,” said Mr. Elleman, who visited the factory repeatedly a decade ago while working on federal projects to curb weapon threats. “They don’t want to do bad things.”
One can only imagine what Elleman would “feel for those guys” if the factory turned out to be Russian, or Chinese.
Describing North Korea’s long history of smuggling rocket technology over the decades – mostly from the former USSR – the NYT writes that eventually, the North turned to an alternative font of engine secrets — the Yuzhmash plant in Ukraine, as well as its design bureau, Yuzhnoye. The team’s engines were potentially easier to copy because they were designed not for cramped submarines but roomier land-based missiles. That simplified the engineering.
Economically, the plant and design bureau faced new headwinds after Russia in early 2014 invaded and annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Relations between the two nations turned icy, and Moscow withdrew plans to have Yuzhmash make new versions of the SS-18 missile. In July 2014, a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that such economic upset could put Ukrainian missile and atomic experts “out of work and could expose their crucial know-how to rogue regimes and proliferators.”
It was right: The first clues that a Ukrainian engine had fallen into North Korean hands came in September when Mr. Kim supervised a ground test of a new rocket engine that analysts called the biggest and most powerful to date. Norbert Brügge, a German analyst, reported that photos of the engine firing revealed strong similarities between it and the RD-250, a Yuzhmash model.
Alarms rang louder after a second ground firing of the North’s new engine, in March, and its powering of the flight in May of a new intermediate-range missile, the Hwasong-12. It broke the North’s record for missile distance. Its high trajectory, if leveled out, translated into about 2,800 miles, or far enough to fly beyond the American military base at Guam.
On June 1, Mr. Elleman struck an apprehensive note. He argued that the potent engine clearly hailed from “a different manufacturer than all the other engines that we’ve seen.”
Mr. Elleman said the North’s diversification into a new line of missile engines was important because it undermined the West’s assumptions about the nation’s missile prowess: “We could be in for surprises.”
That is exactly what happened. The first of the North’s two tests in July of a new missile, the Hwasong-14, went a distance sufficient to threaten Alaska, surprising the intelligence community. The second went far enough to reach the West Coast, and perhaps Denver or Chicago.
If the NYT report is accurate, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the logic behind ongoing US support of Ukraine: as a reminder, two weeks ago the WSJ reported that Pentagon and State Department officials have devised plans to hit Russia where it hurts the most, and supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry, and are now seeking White House approval at a time when ties between Moscow and Washington are as bad as during any point under the Obama administration. In light of the news that Ukraine may be responsible for weaponizing potentially the biggest nuclear threat to the US, perhaps it might not be a bad idea to “delay” or maybe even discontinue this deadly support for Ukraine, even if it means an outpouring of fury from neo-cons like John McCain.
* * *
Finally, in light of the above, perhaps it is time to re-address the following article from March 2015: “Clinton Foundation’s Deep Financial Ties to Ukrainian Oligarch Revealed” which based on a WSJ report, showed that more than any other nation, it was Ukraine donors that were the most generous, especially the Victor Pinchuk foundation: “Between 2009 and 2013, including when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation received at least $8.6 million from the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, according to that foundation, which is based in Kiev, Ukraine. It was created by Mr. Pinchuk, whose fortune stems from a pipe-making company. He served two terms as an elected member of the Ukrainian Parliament and is a proponent of closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union.”
As the WSJ reported at the time:
In 2008, Mr. Pinchuk made a five-year, $29 million commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative, a wing of the foundation that coordinates charitable projects and funding for them but doesn’t handle the money. The pledge was to fund a program to train future Ukrainian leaders and professionals “to modernize Ukraine,” according to the Clinton Foundation. Several alumni are current members of the Ukrainian Parliament.
The Pinchuk foundation said its donations were intended to help to make Ukraine “a successful, free, modern country based on European values.” It said that if Mr. Pinchuk was lobbying the State Department about Ukraine, “this cannot be seen as anything but a good thing.”