Has North Korea copied Soviet ICBMs with help from Ukraine?
Fresh evidence suggests that a Ukraine-based institute may be behind North Korea's surprising advance in ICBM technology
Pyongyang’s rogue missile-firing has evoked a commotion among its neighbours. But the anger has turned into threats after Kim Jong-un’s regime astounded the world on July 4 – Independence Day in the United States – with its first intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew almost 1,000 kilometers after being launched.
The Hwasong-14, which means ‘fire star’ in Korean, reached an altitude of 2,802 km and traveled 933 kilometers east into the Sea of Japan after a 39-minute flight.
The ICBM’s actual range, on an optimum trajectory, is reportedly 6,700km – possibly over 10,000km (not accounting for the Earth’s rotation). That potentially puts targets in Alaska and Hawaii within its range.
The international community had previously been told that it could take more than 10 years before Pyongyang could come up with an ICBM prototype that might pose a substantial threat – until Hwasong-14 skirted across the airspace of northern Japan.
Copycat versions of Soviet missile?
The Russian Defence Ministry initially believed the missile was merely one of the many makeshift “toys” that the Kim regime liked to parade, but the Pentagon confirmed shortly after that it was the real deal.
Russian missile experts who examined photos of Hwasong-14 were quoted as saying the North Korean ICBMs may be copycat versions of long-range missiles made by the Soviet Union, such as the SS-18 Satan, capable of carrying multiple warheads with independently targetable reentry vehicles, Kanwa Defense Review has said.
The Hwasong missiles bear all the hallmarks of the SS-18, and one telling indicator is its strikingly similar fairings.
An initial analysis of the known trajectory and payload of the Hwasong family has lent fresh evidence to conjecture that Pyongyang may have obtained key ICBM technology from the Ukraine-based Yuzhnoye Design Office, which was once a Soviet Union bastion for rockets and advanced weaponry research and development, but is now allegedly laden with debt.
Pyongyang’s infiltration and espionage targeting classified military intelligence may still be underway.
China link to Ukraine, ICBM technology?
North Korea’s ability to “skip grades” in missile technology, notably in regard to composite materials, solid fuels, and warhead thermo-protection, has spooked analysts, who now suspect the regime may have taken lessons from outside, given that Pyongyang is hard pressed to even feed its own population.
“Since 2000, Pyongyang has been sending spies to Ukraine, sometimes via Moscow, forcing the latter of tip-off Kiev to intercept [them]. But it appears that the strained ties between Moscow and Kiev are now playing into Pyongyang’s hand,” an observer said.
The fact that Pyongyang’s initial ICBM launches were all a success has also led to more doubt or mystery, rather than recognition of its genuine military capabilities.
Given Pyongyang’s suspected theft of advanced technology from Ukraine, Beijing’s money-for-intell and buy-up of military equipment from the same country has also been drawn into question.
Beijing makes no bones about the fact that its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a restoration of a rusting hulk bought from Ukraine via a Macau-registered shell company founded by a Chinese businessman with a military background.
Other reports suggest Beijing also smuggled Sukhoi Su-33, all-weather carrier-based jet fighters, as well as the air-launched Kh-55 cruise missiles.
Kanwa Defense Review suspects that Beijing may have also received help from Yuzhnoye, notably during the 1990s when the infant nuclear division of the People’s Liberation Army was seeking breakthroughs in multi-warhead technology and miniaturization of its nuclear warheads.