Experts believe that the origins of Kim Jong-un’s missile programs are in Ukraine. Read how Ukraine helped North Korea develop the world’s deadliest weapons.
North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear missile program continues to be a major source of concern for the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Its creation, however, would not have been conceivable without Pyongyang’s access to Soviet technology, notably nuclear-capable weaponry that stayed in Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s demise. This article digs into the odd story of Ukraine’s role in transforming North Korea into a major threat to America and its Asian allies.
The total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is one of several shared objectives between the US, South Korea, and Japan. This idea was reiterated by US President Joe Biden during the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022. Washington’s friends in Asia, meanwhile, have lately discovered a fresh cause for worry. On June 14, South Korea’s foreign minister Park Jin revealed that North Korea has finished making preparations for a second nuclear test.
Earlier than that, in March 2022, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un formally put an end to his nation’s 2018 self-imposed ban on testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that may reach US territory. Washington and Seoul are now eagerly awaiting information regarding new test launches.
How is it even possible for a nation to develop this level of technology when it is practically blocked off from the rest of the world? Perhaps to your surprise, the solution requires that we travel to Ukraine.
From the communist land all the way to the land of Juche
Today, we can claim with almost complete certainty that the DPRK employed RD-250 rocket engines made at the Ukrainian Yuzhmash machine-building company in the city of Dnepropetrovsk for developing and building its intercontinental ballistic missile.
Yuzhmash is a product of the Soviet era, as are the majority of the industrial companies in Ukraine that are still in operation. The facility was constructed in 1944, as World War II was coming to a close. Years later, during the Cold War, its engineers created the most sophisticated missiles for the USSR to compete with the US in the weapons race.
Washington feels threatened by specific Yuzhmash products once more in the twenty-first century, even though Ukraine became a US satellite after the coup of 2014 and the company has since inked agreements with the Americans (to produce rocket stages, engines for these stages, as well as various hardware used in their launch vehicles).
The DPRK most certainly used the RD-250 engines to create its own intercontinental ballistic missile, according to an article in The New York Times from August 2017 that cited Michael Elleman, a missile analyst with the advocacy group Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS).
“It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine – probably illicitly… The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried,” Elleman said. But according to the IISS specialists, the official Kiev authorities were not complicit in the smuggling scheme.
The design bureaus of Yuzhmash were adamant in their denial of any cooperation with Pyongyang and its nuclear missile development, as were Yuzhnoye Design Office, a comparable company in Dnepropetrovsk. Aleksandr Turchynov, secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, even claimed that the claims were the result of a “Russian intelligence campaign” against Ukraine. He asserted that Moscow was using it as a cover for its own support of North Korea.
However, the Ukrainian authorities acknowledged in a 2018 assessment by the 1718 Sanctions Committee (DPRK) that it is very likely that the RD-250 engine made by Yuzhmash was used to manufacture the engine for North Korea’s ballistic missiles. They continued by saying that they believed the packages had to have passed through Russian territory. They would say this, of course.
According to Vasily Kashin of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), this debate over North Korea acquiring liquid-fuel engines from Yuzhmash is the only incident that is formally documented.
“It wasn’t Ukraine sending their engines to North Korea – it was the work of North Korean scientific and technical intelligence in Ukraine that made it all happen. Apparently, the liquid-fuel rocket engines had been acquired there illegally even prior to 2014,” the expert concluded.
Be my guest, or transfer of military technology
However, there is no evidence to suggest that Kiev would be willing to give North Korea a formidable nuclear arsenal because relations between Kiev and Pyongyang have never been cordial and sincere enough. Documentary evidence of Ukraine’s cooperation with other nations in the field of nuclear missiles around the start of the twenty-first century, however, may encourage this line of reasoning.
Of the roughly 1,000 nuclear missiles Kiev had kept following the fall of the USSR, it ultimately got rid of the last one in 1994. As part of the disarmament effort financed by the US, it was intended to give half of them to Russia and destroy the remaining half.
Viktor Yushchenko, the former president of Ukraine, acknowledged in 2005 that the previous government had supplied Iran and China X-55 cruise missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads “through several figureheads.” These missiles have a range of 2,600 kilometers, so this con effectively enhanced the risk of a nuclear assault on Israel and Japan.
It appears that North Korea had alternative methods for obtaining its objectives.
Representatives of North Korea were repeatedly busted trying to get Soviet nuclear missile technology beginning in the 1990s. Kashin thinks Pyongyang has been gathering technological and scientific information in Ukraine for a while.
“According to declassified KGB documents, North Korean scientific and technical intelligence efforts in Ukraine date back to Soviet times. There was a criminal case, for example, involving their agent, a worker of the Arsenal Factory in Kiev, who was caught stealing parts of anti-tank missiles. North Koreans had ample opportunity to get hold of Soviet military technology in the 1990s and early 2000s in Dnepropetrovsk where they were snooping around all the time. And the Ukrainian government was not involved in any of this. There is nothing to confirm that they were selling their technology deliberately, of course. They just took advantage of the gaps in Ukraine’s flawed counter-intelligence system,” Kashin said.
A retired colonel and military analyst named Mikhail Khodarenok reminded journalists of the 1990s’ widespread disorder and anarchy in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine.
“Back then, Ukraine saw much of its critically important technology leak out of the country. We can trace Ukrainian influence in both China’s and Iran’s strategic cruise missile arsenals. And it’s not surprising – everyone did their best to survive in those turbulent times. And many things may indeed have been done without the involvement of [the] Ukrainian leadership.”
“But I don’t believe North Koreans were able to steal much. I am inclined to think that, in many cases, it was all based on deals, on mutual agreement. It’s just that the government was not part of it,” Khodarenok concluded.
North Korea also carried out espionage activities for another 20 years following the fall of the Soviet Union.
By launching its Kwangmyongsong-3 (or KMS-3) satellite into Earth orbit on December 12, 2012, the DPRK became the tenth country to join the international space club. The same year, Ukrainian authorities looked into a prominent spy case involving citizens of North Korea.
Two North Korean citizens who were working for a trade mission in Belarus as a result of it were given an eight-year prison sentence. The personnel of the Yuzhnoye Design Office in Ukraine caught them attempting to purchase technical documentation and scientific publications holding significant R&D findings. And they made the modest offer of paying $1,000 for each study on liquid-fuel engine systems. The famed R-36M (or Satan) intercontinental ballistic missile engine was of particular interest to the Koreans, according to a subsequent unnamed source who spoke to the Strana.ua web portal. The missile in question is the strongest of its kind.
Hunger and bombs
The ‘brain drain’ issue, which saw scores of Soviet engineers leave the country after the Belovezh Accords were signed in 1991 dissolving the USSR, has probably also benefited North Korean technology seekers.
Numerous specialists employed by the Ukrainian aircraft industry Yuzhmash lost their stable income and career possibilities as a result of the post-Soviet deindustrialization of Ukraine. These people were consequently compelled to hunt for alternative sources of income.
There were few options. Either they might accept a tempting—though perhaps illegal—offer to assist other nations with their nuclear missile systems, or they could try their luck on the erratic post-Soviet labor market by starting a business or working as a salesperson.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, many of them were placed in challenging situations on both a personal and professional level. Some of them may have even been to Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea.
Carlos Pascual, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, later acknowledged that the significance of this situation, in which high-level specialists lost their employment, was disregarded. This was significant for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; it was not only an issue of their personal agony.
But in the middle of the 1990s, the US and the EU started to make some moves. They provided funding for the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine, an intergovernmental institution whose goal was to prevent the leakage of knowledge and experience regarding WMD.
Executive Director Curtis Bjelajac said that there was a time when the center essentially paid particular experts. Millions of dollars were ultimately spent on ex-Soviet engineers and scientists who specialized in nuclear and missile technology. According to general opinion, this has assisted in halting the migration of professionals into nations that are experimenting with harmful technology. Are there any “leaks” though?
Mikhail Khodarenok claims that there is consensus among experts that Yuzhmash specialists’ efforts assisted North Korea in developing its missile program.
“You can’t really judge Yuzhmash engineers – everyone tried to survive back then, and those countries paid good money. I think that many went there for work. North Korea would not have made such advances without the expertise in the critical technology. The Soviet Union also had to borrow – it used Wernher von Braun’s research after the war,” Khodarenok said. (Von Braun was a German aerospace engineer and Nazi Party member who later worked in the US).
Creative nuclear weapons
South Korea has been quite circumspect in its assistance to Kiev during this year’s crisis, offering largely spiritual support and non-lethal military aid, in contrast to Western Europe and the US. This response surprises a few people. Why is not Seoul working harder? Maybe South Korea is worried that the supplies given to Ukraine could one day mysteriously emerge north of the 38th parallel?
Although Khodarenok believes this to be implausible, he finds the theory intriguing. Since “every Russian family owns several things manufactured in South Korea, and the country doesn’t want to lose that market,” he claims, that is the actual reason the country is not investing fully. However, the expert cautions that Seoul can alter its position in response to pressure from Washington.
Kashin understands the link between the North’s nuclear issue and South Korea’s muted response, but he discovers it elsewhere.
“South Korea knows that if it helps Ukraine, Russia will stop complying with the sanctions against North Korea. Seoul understands that it shouldn’t burn all bridges with Russia, whose military operation in Ukraine was supported by North Korea (one of very few countries). And since Russia’s relations with all developed [sic] countries went south, Moscow might decide to get creative with its North Korea partnership. And nobody wants that – especially not South Korea. Israel, by the way, is guided by the same considerations – it has refused to supply Ukraine with any lethal equipment, because Russia might respond by providing Iran with some unpleasant weapons,” he commented.