Alexander Nemets
An economist, analyst and expert on China and its relations with Russia
Real foundation of the “North Korean miracle”

General picture of the “North Korean crisis

In 2016 and, especially since the beginning of 2017, our world has become much more unstable. One of the most destabilizing factors has been a sharp increase in the nuclear-missile potential of North Korea (DPRK). More precisely, the following has happened:

  • The number of nuclear devices (warheads) at the disposal of the “Juche regime” increased from 6-8 units in January 2015 to 8-10 units in January 2016, and to 10-20 units in January 2017 (according to the very authoritative SIPRI – Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Still, by August 2017, this estimate has grown “by a single leap forward” to 40-60 units (according to the Defense Intelligence Agency and other structures in the U.S. intelligence community). This fact was first reported on August 8 by The Washington Post, known by its reliable sources. In general, the power of these devices does not exceed 10-15 kilotons of TNT (roughly the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima).
  • At least one nuclear weapon at the disposal of North Korean leaders reached a power of about 150 kilotons and its parameters corresponds to that of a hydrogen bomb. The test of this bomb on September 3, 2017 had very broad resonance in the world and especially in the USA. It is highly possible that by the end of September 2017 the “Juche” regime had several more nuclear weapons of the similar power.
  • For several decades (at least since 1989), the DPRK has been developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) called Hwasong-10 with a radius of approximately 4,000 km, based largely on technology obtained from the USSR. A number of Hwasong-10 tests in April 2016 – February 2017 were mostly unsuccessful and demonstrated very limited technological capabilities of the DPRK in this area.
  • All of a sudden, the situation changed dramatically. In May 2017, DPRK successfully tested an IRBM Hwasong-12 with a radius of approximately 5,000 km, capable of reaching the island of Guam and Alaska. Two more successful tests of Hwasong-12 – namely unprecedented brazen “flights over Japan” – took place on August 29 and September 15, 2017. Moreover, quite tellingly, until April 2017 no one in the world, outside of the DPRK, had a slightest idea of Hwasong-12 existence.
  • Furthermore, in July of 2017 the DPRK successfully tested the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 with a radius of at least 10,000 km twice. This missile can cover almost the entire continental part of the United States. Again, until July 2017 no one outside the DPRK knew anything about the missile.

Using math terminology, there was an exponential growth of the North Korean nuclear-missile sector in 2017. Using biblical terms, one can recall Beast-of-the-Sea from Apocalypse. This Beast-of-the-Sea would suddenly appear at the time of the universal catastrophe and take control over the dying world.

We can see four such Beasts-of-the-Sea almost instantly emerging out of nowhere: the triple increase in the number of nuclear devices in the DPRK’s storage facilities during eight months of this year; the arrival and successful testing of North Korean “hydrogen” bomb; three successful Hwasong-12 IRBM tests, and twice successfully tested Hwasong-14 ICBM. That’s some black magic!

I became seriously engaged in the study of this “magic” in mid-August 2017 – after reading an interview of a prominent German missile designer Robert Schmucker with online “Deutsche Welle” newspaper on August 9 2017 about the “fat Russian trail” in the North Korean nuclear-missile program. In particular, Professor Schmuker noted, that Pyongyang has used a fundamentally new technology in recent missile tests. He indicated that the DPRK would have to utilize giant resources for new missiles development from scratch.

As an engineer creating missiles through his entire career, Dr. Robert Schmucker noted that the designer needs a certain number of missile prototypes to be launched and their trajectories to be measured; conclusions to be made based on these launches, errors corrected, ballistic tables compiled, etc. Without numerous unsuccessful tests, a successful launch of a missile is impossible.   We have not seen anything of this, the prominent missile expert stressed. And he believes that it is impossible to conceal such works, since “North Korea is under constant surveillance”.

“The costs for these projects would have to be enormous, you would need seven project teams, several factories to produce the missiles of different diameters, they’d need various materials, fuel, etc. Developing these projects concurrently and, at the same time, making sure practically all the launches, including the first ones, are successful? This is impossible for anybody; the only plausible explanation: these missiles came from outside,” – the expert concluded.

Where the engines came from? 

Since August 2017, Russian state media has been “helpfully” offering various versions that would explain “clear and simple” the North Korean nuclear-missile “miracles”:

  • DPRK received the production technologies for RD-250 missile engines and similar engines from Ukraine, from the Yuzhmash plant and Yuzhnoye design bureau, where the RD-250 engines have been produced for several decades, until 2001. “Just the modifications of the RD-250 have been used in the North Korean Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles!”
  • The DPRK received a significant part of the new nuclear-missile technologies from China.
  • North Korea has independently mastered new nuclear missile technology. “They’ve tried for so many years, and finally they succeeded!”
  • Iran has rendered very substantial assistance to the DPRK in the development of nuclear- missile technology.

Elleman, the author of the IISS report cited in The New York Times story, later took to Twitter to walk back the quote attributed to him in The New York Times in which he said the engines more likely came from Ukraine than Russia. “Let me be clear about DPRK’s source of ICBM engine: Yuzhnoye is one of several possible sources, there are other potentials in Russia,” Elleman wrote on Twitter. “I don’t believe Ukr gov’t condoned or knew, if the engines were sourced in Ukr. To the contrary, Ukr arrested North Koreans in 2012!” Elleman wrote on Twitter.

Of course, all this does withstand any criticism, especially the fabrications about the possible complicity of Ukraine.  However, on August 14, 2017 The New York Times published an article by Michael Elman, an expert at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). The article claimed that most likely North Korean agents purchased several RD-250 missile engines, as well as technologies for manufacturing these and similar engines” on the black market” during the “troubled times” of 2014-2015 in Ukraine.  At the same time, Elman did not rule out that North Korea could buy RD-250 engines and corresponding technologies in Russia in Ukraine, also on the black market. Elman ruled out any direct participation of the government of Ukraine as well as the government of Russia.

The Russian media eagerly picked up the “Ukrainian component” of the article in The New York Times, while the “Russian component” has been completely ignored.

And in Ukraine? Representatives of the Yuzhmash plant stated: “Missiles and military-use missile systems have not been produced and are not being produced at Yuzhmash since Ukrainian independence”.  Top leaders of Ukraine and its military experts categorically rejected Michael Elman’s conclusions. Through Yelchenko, Ukrainian envoy to the UN, they suggested that United Nations and US top leadership should conduct a thorough investigation of the problem, namely, whether Ukraine has anything to do with the new North Korean missile technologies and whether there has been any missile technology leakage from Ukraine.

FOR THE REFERENCE: engines RD-250, the modifications of which are used in Hwasong-10, Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14 missiles, have been developed by Energomash Group in Khimki, near Moscow, but their manufacturing had been transferred to Yuzhmash plant in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine back during Soviet times. There they have been used for installation in Satan R-36 ICBMs until 1991. After that, until 2001, these engines have been manufactured in Ukraine for usage in Russian Cyclone space missile carriers.  At this time in Ukraine, all RD-250 engines have been accounted for.  And in Russia, according to Ukrainian experts, there are up to 20 Cyclone missile carriers and up to 80 RD-250 engines, as well as proper documentation and expertise. Obviously, in the case of an international investigation experts will have to investigate just these engines.

Already by the end of August, the United States representative in the UN Nikki Haley and senior US State Department officials stated firmly: “Ukraine has a very good track record in the prevention of leakage of missile technologies and other dangerous technologies”. They also said that NY Times article and similar allegations against Ukraine are baseless and will not affect the US decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in any way. This was brief and clear.

So, perhaps, was it China helping the DPRK?  It is ridiculous. China is absolutely not interested in strengthening of its eastern neighbor and, at least since 1992, has not supplied the DPRK with any weapons.  By the way, as of September 2017, relations between the DPRK and China have fallen very low, while relations between the DPRK and Russia were going up and up.

What about independent research &development of DPRK itself? Or perhaps Iranian help? North Korea is too weak, economically and technologically, for the “Great Leap Forward” in several directions at once in the nuclear missile sphere described above. And even Iran could help the DPRK in a very insignificant way.

So whom to blame then? Here is a statement by Siemon Wezeman, an expert of authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on August 18, 2017 at the UN, which can become the key: “In the supply of missile technology to the DPRK, are involved either Ukraine or Russia.” The former is unlikely, primarily, because Ukraine has no common border with North Korea. A rocket engine is not a needle in a haystack; even disassembled, it is difficult to move across a border unnoticed. With modern monitoring systems, it is hard to believe such transit could occur quietly. Even if it happened, Ukrainian leaders would not demand a public investigation of the case.

Based on the above, Ukraine, which is watched closely, should be taken off the “radar screen”. Then only Russia remains? We have to admit that this is the case.

The Soviet Union had always actively assisted North Korea in the upgrading of its military machine.  Russia “inherited” this support.  In 2014 (according to other sources, in 2012), Putin wrote off 90% of the North Korean debt to Russia, which was about $11 billion. Moreover, when in 2017 China stopped its energy exports – oil and petroleum products – to North Korea, Russia immediately replaced China.

Russia supported North Korea’s nuclear program technologically: since 2015, North Korean specialists have been working at Russian nuclear research facilities. Now in 2017, Russia is providing significantly more serious support to the missile program of North Korea.

In May of 2017, at the very moment when Pyongyang initiated series of successful missile tests (Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14) and was going to test its “hydrogen bomb”, and while the whole world was cutting off their last ties with DPRK, Russia opened a new sea lane between Russian port of Vladivostok and Korean port of Najin (Rajin).  Najin is located about 50 km (appr. 30 miles) southwest of Russian-North Korean border and 120 km (about 75 miles) southwest of Vladivostok. And Najin is quite close to Kusong, the main North Korean missile range. Mon Gyong Bong ship, owned by Russian company registered in North Korea, continuously makes voyages between Vladivostok and Kusun port and, apparently, services Pyongyang missile launches.

Why would Putin involve himself in this new gamble? This is a subject for a separate article.