Ukraine's state space agency said the rocket engine used to launch North Korea's most recent intercontinental ballistic missile is the same as the type of engine used by Ukraine-made space vehicles.
But Ukraine denied supplying the engines to North Korea, raising the possibility Russia might have played a middleman role in delivering the powerful engines to Pyongyang, Radio Free Asia reported.
The statement from the Ukrainian government agency came Tuesday, a day after The New York Times reported American investigators found evidence North Korea purchased the engines on the black market, and that they were "probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia's missile program."
According to Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korea switched suppliers in recent years, and turned the fate of its missile program around with Ukrainian technology.
"It's likely that these engines came from Ukraine -- probably illicitly," Elleman told The Times. "The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I'm very worried."
The plant historically provided supplies to Russia's missile program, but fell into disarray after 2014, and Russia stopped placing orders, according to The Times.
The origins of the new engine (see Figures 1 and 2) are difficult to determine with certainty. However, a process of elimination sharply narrows the possibilities.
There is no evidence to suggest that North Korea successfully designed and developed the LPE indigenously. Even if, after importing Scud and Nodong engines, North Korea had mastered the production of clones, which remains debateable, this does not mean that it could design, develop and manufacture a large LPE from scratch, especially one that uses higher-performance propellants and generates 40 tonnes’ thrust.
Figure 1: The liquid-propellant engines ground tested in September 2016 and March 2017 appear to be the same, though only the second ground test and the Hwasong-12 flight test operate with four auxiliary or vernier engines, which steer the missile.
If this engine was imported, most potential sources can be eliminated because the external features, propellant combination and performance profile of the LPE in question are unique. The engine tested by North Korea does not physically resemble any LPE manufactured by the US, France, China, Japan, India or Iran. Nor do any of these countries produce an engine that uses storable propellants and generates the thrust delivered by the Hwasong-12 and -14 LPE. This leaves the former Soviet Union as the most likely source.
Given North Korea’s reliance to date on technologies originating with the Isayev and Makeyev enterprises, one might suspect one or both as the probable supplier. However, neither enterprise has been associated with an engine that matches the performance of LPE used by Hwasong-12 and -14.
Figure 2: The three missiles tested by North Korea are powered by the same engine complex, with one main engine and four steering engines.
An exhaustive search of engines produced by other manufacturers in the former Soviet Union yields a couple of possibilities, all of which are associated with the Russian enterprise named after V.P. Glushko, now known as Energomash. The RD-217, RD-225 and RD-250 engine families use high-energy, storable-liquid propellants similar to those employed by engines tested by North Korea. Neither the RD-217 nor RD-225 have external features matching those of North Korea’s new engine. The RD-250 is the only match.
The RD-250 engine is normally configured as a pair of combustion chambers, which receive propellant from a single turbopump, as shown in Figure 3. When operated in tandem, the two chambers generate roughly 78–80 tonnes’ thrust. This level of thrust is similar to the claims North Korea made when the first ground test was conducted and publicised in September 2016.
Figure 3: The RD-250 engine consists of a pair of combustion chambers fed by a single turbopump.
It gradually became clear, however, that the Hwasong-12 and -14 used single-chamber engines. Note, for example, that Pyongyang claimed that a new pump design was used for the September ground test. This makes sense, because operating the RD-250 as a single chamber LPE would necessitate a new or modified turbopump. Having no demonstrated experience modifying or developing large LPE turbopumps, Pyongyang’s engineers would have been hard pressed to make the modifications themselves. Rather, the technical skills needed to modify the existing RD-250 turbopump, or fashioning a new one capable of feeding propellant to a single chamber would reside with experts with a rich history of working with the RD-250. Such expertise is available at Russia’s Energomash concern and Ukraine’s KB Yuzhnoye. One has to conclude that the modified engines were made in those factories.
Ukrainian officials and analysts were quick to deny allegations that the Soviet-era Yuzhmash arms factory was a likely source of engine technology used in North Korea’s missiles and to redirect suspicions to Russia.
“It is a complex and bulky piece of equipment. It is simply not possible to supply it by bypassing export procedures,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank, to VOA’s Ukrainian Service. “What is possible, is for North Korea to obtain engines left behind after rocket dismantling in Russia. That could be possible. Meaning Russia could have kept the engines after it had taken apart the rockets, which had been slated for dismantling. Those could have been supplied.”
Michael Elleman, the author of a research report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Pyongyang probably got illicit help from inside Ukraine. But Elleman acknowledges that help also could have come from Russia.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty as exactly how it could have been transferred. But, I think the likelihood is that the source is either in Russia or Ukraine,” Elleman told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.
North Korea’s success in testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears able to reach the United States was made possible by black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia’s missile program, according to an 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.
Such a degree of aid to North Korea from afar would be notable because President Trump has singled out only China as the North’s main source of economic and technological support. He has never blamed Ukraine or Russia, though his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, made an oblique reference to both China and Russia as the nation’s “principal economic enablers” after the North’s most recent ICBM launch last month.
Analysts who studied photographs of the North’s leader, 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.
Those engines were 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.
But since Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was removed from power in 2014, 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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare the issue of Kyiv's non-involvement in the missile program of North Korea for consideration at the United Nations Security Council, the presidential official website said.
"In light of the conclusions made by the commission [the inter-agency commission for the policy of military-technical cooperation and export control] I want to instruct the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine to prepare a group of experts and initiate consideration of this matter at a closed UN Security Council session," Poroshenko said after hearing a report on the results of a working group which checked into the information contained in the New York Times article dated August 14, 2017.
"Separately, it is necessary to publish the conclusions of the working group and the inter-agency commission [for the policy of military-technical cooperation and export control], inform our international partners and initiate a similar inquiry by appropriate countries. The same kind of openness must primarily be demonstrated by the Russian Federation," Poroshenko said.