When the US State Department supported Ukraine domestic forces and nationalist elements to stage a successful and deadly coup against then pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the outcome was supposed to be a nation that is a undisputed US ally and persistent threat, distraction and non-NATO opponent to bordering Russia. Instead, it now appears that it has been Ukraine which was, as the NYT writes, the secret behind the success of North Korea's ballistic missile program.
Specifically, in a blockbuster report this morning, the NYT alleges that North Korea has been making black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines from a Ukrainian factory citing "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.
According to the report, analysts who studied photographs of 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."
Since the alleged engines have been 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.
Ukraine President Poroshenko visiting the Yuzhmash plant in Dnipro in 2014
However, after the 2014 coup which ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, 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."
In other words, it is America's latest Eastern European "ally" that is behind what is rapidly emerging as a potential nuclear threat that can blanket as much as half of the continental US.
"It's likely that these engines came from Ukraine — probably illicitly," Elleman told the NYT in an interview. "The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I'm very worried."
Bolstering his conclusion, he added, was a finding by United Nations investigators that North Korea tried six years ago to steal missile secrets from the Ukrainian complex. Two North Koreans were caught, and a U.N. report said the information they tried to steal was focused on advanced "missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems." Investigators now believe that, amid the chaos of post-revolutionary Ukraine, Pyongyang tried again.