How N. Korea got its mis­sile en­gines

Propul­sion sys­tems show de­tails from old Soviet tech­nol­ogy, ex­perts say

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOBY WAR­RICK

Four months be­fore its July 4 mis­sile test, North Korea of­fered the world a rare tech­ni­cal pre­view of its lat­est mis­sile en­gine, one said to be ca­pa­ble of lob­bing nu­clear war­heads at U.S. cities. A video on state-run TV de­picted a ma­chine with thick­ets of tubes and vents, and a shape that struck some U.S. ex­perts as fa­mil­iar — in a dis­tinctly Soviet way.

“It shocked me,” said Michael Elle­man, one weapons ex­pert who no­ticed jar­ring sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the en­gine tested by North Korea in March and one he fre­quently en­coun­tered in Rus­sia at the end of the Cold War. “It seemed to come out of nowhere.”

Af­ter in­ten­sive study, Elle­man, a for­mer con­sul­tant at the Pen­tagon, and other spe­cial­ists would re­port that they had de­tected mul­ti­ple de­sign fea­tures in the new North Korean mis­sile en­gine that echo those of a 1960s-era Soviet work­horse called the RD-250.

There is no record of Py­ongyang’s ob­tain­ing blue­prints for the Rus­sian mis­sile en­gine, and ex­perts dis­agree on whether it ever did so. But the dis­cov­ery of sim­i­lar­i­ties has fo­cused new at­ten­tion on a ques­tion that has dogged U.S. an­a­lysts for at least the past two years: How has North Korea man­aged to make sur­pris­ingly rapid gains in its mis­sile pro­gram, de­spite eco­nomic sanc­tions and a nearuni­ver­sal ban on ex­ports of mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy to the im­pov­er­ished com­mu­nist state?

Many weapons ex­perts say North Korea’s star­tling dis­play of mis­sile prow­ess is a re­flec­tion of the coun­try’s grow­ing mas­tery of weapons tech­nol­ogy, as well as its leader’s fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion to take the coun­try into the nu­clear club. But oth­ers see con­tin­u­ing ev­i­dence of an out­size role by for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing Rus­sian sci­en­tists who provided de­signs and

know-how years ago, and the Chi­nese ven­dors who sup­ply the elec­tron­ics needed for modern mis­sile-guid­ance sys­tems.

Whether out­siders played a de­ci­sive role in Tues­day’s fir­ing of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile is not pub­licly known. But the ev­i­dence from the tele­vised en­gine test in March is tan­ta­liz­ing, and also dis­turb­ing, an­a­lysts say. While North Korea is known to have ob­tained other Soviet mis­sile de­signs in the past, the new rev­e­la­tions sug­gest the pos­si­bil­ity of a trans­fer of weapons se­crets that has gone un­de­tected un­til now.

“It would mean that North Korea had a wider pro­cure­ment net­work in the for­mer Soviet Union than we had thought,” said Elle­man, a mis­sile ex­pert at the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies who over­saw the dis­man­tling of Soviet-era mis­siles in Rus­sia and Ukraine two decades ago. “My first ques­tion would be, ‘What else have they got?’ ”

A foun­da­tion of knowl­edge

It was, with­out a doubt, one of the strangest mass ar­rests in the his­tory of Moscow’s Shereme­tyevo-2 Air­port: On Oct. 15, 1992, po­lice de­tained 60 Rus­sian mis­sile sci­en­tists, along with their fam­i­lies, as they pre­pared to board a plane for North Korea.

Un­der ques­tion­ing, the sci­en­tists con­fessed that they had been hired as a group to help the North Kore­ans build a modern mis­sile fleet. In those early days af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, there was lit­tle work for Rus­sia’s elite weapons sci­en­tists and lit­tle pay to help them feed and clothe their fam­i­lies.

“We wanted to make money and come back,” one of the sci­en­tists ex­plained at the time to a Rus­sian jour­nal­ist.

Scores of other sci­en­tists did make the jour­ney in the 1990s, tak­ing with them decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as parts and blue­prints. It was the be­gin­ning of a Rus­sian-in­flu­enced re­nais­sance in North Korea’s mis­sile arse­nal, which un­til then con­sisted mostly of out­dated, early-gen­er­a­tion Scuds, some of them pur­chased on the black mar­ket. About the same time, North Korea also ob­tained sen­si­tive nu­clear tech­nol­ogy from Pak­istani sci­en­tist Ab­dul Qadeer Khan.

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has in­sisted it had noth­ing to do with the trans­fer of mis­sile se­crets to North Korea. But Soviet de­signs be­came the tem­plates for a se­ries of in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles built and tested by North Korea over the next two decades, with ex­tra fea­tures and ca­pa­bil­i­ties added by a new gen­er­a­tion of en­gi­neers re­cruited from the coun­try’s best schools.

Still, the pro­gram strug­gled, with many mis­siles blow­ing up on the launch­pad, said Gau­rav Kam­pani, a Univer­sity of Tulsa in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity ex­pert and fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton-based At­lantic Coun­cil.

“North Korea’s bal­lis­tic mis­siles, es­pe­cially its long-range mis­sile project, were often con­sid­ered a joke be­cause of an un­usual num­ber of test fail­ures,” Kam­pani said.

Se­ri­ous ad­vances

The jokes all but stopped af­ter North Korea achieved a se­ries of tech­ni­cal break­throughs in sur­pris­ingly rapid suc­ces­sion. Just in the past four years, Py­ongyang has launched satel­lites into or­bit and suc­cess­fully tested one mis­sile that can be fired from a sub­ma­rine, as well as an­other that uses solid fuel, a sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary ad­vance be­cause it al­lows for more mo­bil­ity and a much faster launch.

On Tues­day, its Hwa­song-14 mis­sile be­came the first in North Korean his­tory ca­pa­ble of trav­el­ing more than 3,400 miles, the min­i­mum dis­tance needed to be clas­si­fied as an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

The mis­sile is be­lieved to be a two-stage ver­sion of the Hwa­song12, which car­ries the same en­gine North Korea put on pub­lic dis­play in March.

In nearly ev­ery case, the tech­ni­cal foun­da­tions of the new mis­siles can be traced to knowhow ac­quired from Rus­sians and oth­ers over many years. Yet, the ad­vances of the past years sug­gest that North Korea’s en­gi­neers are now man­ag­ing quite well on their own.

“The con­sen­sus has been that North Korea’s pro­gram — mis­sile as well as nu­clear — is mostly in­dige­nous,” said Laura Hol­gate, a top ad­viser on non­pro­lif­er­a­tion to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion who stepped down in Jan­uary as head of the U.S. mis­sion to the United Na­tions in Vienna. “They con­tinue to seek to im­port com­mer­cial dual-use tech­nolo­gies for their weapons pro­grams, but the de­sign and in­no­va­tion is homegrown.”

The many fail­ures in the past were sim­ply part of the learn­ing curve for a coun­try with a demon­strated abil­ity to ben­e­fit from its mis­takes, said David Al­bright, a for­mer U.N. weapons in­spec­tor and pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity, a Wash­ing­ton think tank.

“Armed with the ac­qui­si­tion of many goods from abroad, North Korea ap­pears to have de­voted con­sid­er­able re­sources to mak­ing the mis­siles do­mes­ti­cally and, more im­por­tantly, fig­ur­ing out how to launch them suc­cess­fully,” Al­bright said. “With re­gards to mis­siles, prac­tice makes per­fect.”

De­ter­mined to succeed

Yet it is also clear that North Korea’s en­gi­neers are con­tin­u­ing to ben­e­fit from de­signs be­queathed to them years ago. Be­fore Py­ongyang’s new mis­sile en­gine sur­faced, U.S. of­fi­cials fret­ted about the Hwa­song-10, a mo­bile, in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile that was suc­cess­fully tested last June. The mis­sile, which is ca­pa­ble of reach­ing tar­gets as far as Guam, 2,000 miles away, has been shown in independent analy­ses to be a mod­i­fied ver­sion of a Rus­sian mis­sile com­monly known as the R-27 Zyb. North Korea is be­lieved to have ob­tained the Rus­sian blue­print in the 1990s and to have spent years work­ing on pro­to­types, cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials said.

Elle­man, the for­mer Pen­tagon mis­sile ex­pert, be­lieves that North Korea’s new­est mis­sile en­gine has a sim­i­lar past. The de­signs were most likely ob­tained years ago, through rogue sci­en­tists or on the black mar­ket, only to sur­face re­cently as part of a newly en­er­gized mis­sile pro­gram.

Elle­man is pre­par­ing to pub­lish an anal­y­sis com­par­ing the en­gine used in the Hwa­song-12 and Hwa­song-14 with the Sovi­etera RD-250, us­ing photos that high­light nearly iden­ti­cal fea­tures, in­clud­ing cool­ing tubes, ex­haust noz­zles and the four aux­il­iary en­gines that steer the rocket.

“They’ve had th­ese de­signs for a long time, and they’ve prob­a­bly been do­ing ex­er­cises around th­ese en­gines for 15 years,” he said. “All that work was done, and all [that] was left to do was the ground test­ing and flight test­ing with th­ese dif­fer­ent de­signs. It is what has al­lowed them to rapidly build up and try all th­ese things over the past few years.”

The Kim Jong Un fac­tor

The key new el­e­ment was most likely North Korean leader Kim Jong Un him­self, who ac­cel­er­ated the pace of the coun­try’s nu­clear and mis­sile de­vel­op­ment soon af­ter tak­ing power. “They are se­ri­ous about try­ing to cre­ate a ca­pa­bil­ity that could threaten the United States,” Elle­man said.

The lin­ger­ing Soviet legacy partly ex­plains why North Korean tech­nol­ogy tends to be decades be­hind that of the United States and other modern mil­i­tary pow­ers, said David S. Co­hen, a for­mer deputy di­rec­tor of the CIA who had ad­vised the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on North Korea’s weapons ad­vances.

“The mis­siles they’re shoot­ing now have some new en­gi­neer­ing, but it’s all based on old Soviet mod­els,” Co­hen said.

Un­able to pur­chase ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy on the open mar­ket, North Korea also re­mains de­pen­dent on smug­glers and black­mar­ke­teers to ob­tain some of the parts it needs, par­tic­u­larly elec­tron­ics, Co­hen said.

But he cau­tioned against un­der­es­ti­mat­ing a North Korean lead­er­ship that re­peat­edly dis­played in­ge­nu­ity in work­ing with old de­signs and sys­tems as well as a de­ter­mi­na­tion to succeed in the face of in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion and cen­sure.

“It is a mis­take to think that this is re­ally a her­mit kingdom that is cut off and doesn’t have ac­cess to the In­ter­net,” Co­hen said. “They have a lot of dis­ad­van­tages, but the big­gest part of the gov­ern­ment economy is their nu­clear and mis­siles pro­gram, so the smartest folks they have are di­rected to do this work.

“My fear,” he added, “is that peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate them.”


His­to­rian Michael Carey has a col­lec­tion of civil de­fense guides and says that Alaskans often act dis­mis­sive about North Korean mis­siles be­cause of the state’s his­tory of for­eign threats. Story, A14

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