The New York Times asserts that the key to North Korea’s rapid development of an intercontinental ballistic missile able to range most of the U.S. lies in the former Soviet Union, but the report appears to be full of holes.
North Korea’s new Hwasong-14 ICBM “was made possible by black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia’s missile program,” TheNYT writes. The piece rehashes a Washington Post article from July and cites the research of Michael Elleman, a respected missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
North Korea has managed to develop and successfully test an ICBM much earlier than expected, leading Elleman and TheNYT to conclude that North Korea had help from a foreign source, specifically the former Soviet Union.
TheNYT explains that the chaos in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine potentially exposed missile technology to rogue regimes like North Korea.
Other leading North Korea experts disagree with these assessments, arguing that Elleman and TheNYT inaccurately conflate two separate engines and that North Korea likely developed its engines domestically, merely relying on foreign designs rather than foreign imports.
“I believe TheNYT story and the report it draws upon are substantially in error,” Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I don’t find this any more persuasive than when the Post ran the same story a month ago,” Jeffrey Lewis, a leading arms expert and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, posted on Twitter, “I find it totally unpersuasive.”
Elleman and TheNYT assume the rocket engine tested in September and the engine tested in March — the engine on the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile and the first stage of the Hwasong-14 ICBM — are the same and were acquired from sources inside the former Soviet Union. However, that does not seem to be case.
The engine North Korea tested last fall reportedly has the ability to generate an estimated 80 tons of thrust, leading the U.S. government to suspect a connection to Iran, not Russia or the Ukraine. The Department of the Treasury sanctioned several Iranians in January of last year for their role in the development of an 80-ton rocket booster and their questionable ties to Pyongyang.
Elleman assesses that the engines on the Hwasong-12 IRBM and the Hwasong-14 ICBM are single-chamber versions of the two-chamber Soviet RD-250 engine, which he and TheNYT claim was obtained in Ukraine and tested in September. Elleman notes in his research that each chamber can generate roughly 40 tons of thrust, indicating that the two-chambered version matches the description, at least in terms of thrust, of the engine tested in September.
North Korea relied heavily on former Soviet technology and designs to expand its arsenal of ballistic missiles in the country’s early years, and there is the possibility North Korea did so with the engine tested last September, even if Department of the Treasury Department is pointing at Iran.
“It does indeed resemble a Soviet RD-250 engine, and I think it is highly plausible that its designers took advantage of stolen Soviet design information,” Pollack told the TheDCNF, “That has been North Korea’s practice in the past.” For instance, several North Korean spies were arrested in 2011 and sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly attempting to steal essential Ukrainian missile technology. Odds are that the North was interested in pilfering designs, not technology.
But, even if the rocket engine tested last September incorporated Soviet technology, the engine tested in March — the engine that powers the Hwasong-12 IRBM and the first stage of the Hwasong-14 ICBM — is different, according to both Pollack and Lewis.
“There appears to be no direct Soviet or other foreign antecedent for it,” Pollack explained, adding that the engines are different in terms of overall power and size. While Pollack believes that Elleman’s research is inaccurate, he was much more critical of TheNYT. Either the two NYT reporters “were aware of these aspects of the story and decided they cast too much doubt on their version to include, or they didn’t do their homework,” he wrote on Twitter.
Neither possibility reflects too well on their work,” Pollack added.
While Elleman has produced excellent scholarly research in the past, there have been several inconsistencies in his work regarding North Korea’s engine testing.
“The engine tested by North Korea does not physically resemble any [liquid-propelled engine] manufactured by the US, France, China, Japan, India or Iran,” Elleman wrote in the piece referenced by TheNYT. “This leaves the former Soviet Union as the most likely source,” he added. In an earlier report produced in 2016, Elleman explained that “the engine tested is likely a version of China’s YF-20 design.” On this point, the two reports appear to contradict one another.
TheNYT article uses ambiguous language, relies on limited sourcing, and fails to explore other potential connections in countries such as Iran or the possibility that North Korea’s engine technology is indigenous. The piece also tries to push the ongoing Russia narrative, arguing, “Such a degree of aid from afar would be notable because President Trump has singled out China as the North’s main source of economic and technological support, [but] he has never blamed Ukraine or Russia.”
Elleman’s report was speculative and acknowledged other possibilities, but TheNYT asserted more definitively that the source of North Korea’s ICBM engines is Ukraine, claiming that the intelligence community agrees.
“No one I have spoken to within the [U.S. government] has been able to corroborate that [story], and several independent experts I regard highly think the argument is problematic,” Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat explained to TheDCNF. “I don’t personally put much heed in it, but I’m also not ready to write it off entirely just yet,” he added. PBS Special Correspondent Nick Schifrin revealed that he spoke with intelligence officials, who suggested that North Korea is more capable than Elleman and TheNYT believe.
The Ukrainian government, which accused Elleman of being part of a Russian-orchestrated anti-Ukraine campaign, issued a firm denial that it contributed to North Korea’s weapons development. Despite the Ukrainian government’s statements, there is no evidence that he is involved in any such campaign.
Pollack reminded his Twitter followers that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not behind everything.
Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, argues that TheNYT report and the research it is based on represent a broader trend in which observers repeatedly underestimate North Korea’s capabilities, including its ability to indigenously develop weapons technology.
“It’s more likely that they are perhaps borrowing some design influence but not actually importing engines at all,” she explained to Schifrin on PBS “NewsHour.”
“I think it’s really common to believe that North Korea is backwards,” Hanham said, “What’s happened in North Korea is that they have marshaled their resources, limited though they are, towards their military program.”
The North “procurement activities over the past few years have definitely shown that they have imported the machine tools they need in order to produce these types of engines,” she added, explaining that the newer engines appear to be indigenous, even if there are commonalities with other engine models developed in other countries.
The Pentagon refused to comment for this post.
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