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North Korea's Secret Weapon In Nuclear Program: Ukrainian Rocket Engines


North Korea's threat against Guam underscores this disconcerting fact - the North Koreans have made dramatic improvements in developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Researcher Michael Elleman says they could not have done that alone. In a study for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Elleman says that help may have come from a factory in Ukraine. And, Mr. Elleman, thanks for joining us today.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: You write that North Korea has acquired a high-performance liquid propellant engine from a foreign source. First, how do we know that the North Koreans couldn't have engineered an engine like that on their own?

ELLEMAN: Well, we haven't seen them develop and use any kind of engine that was based on their technology development. We haven't seen even small engines. The engine that powers these particular missiles is quite powerful. It's large. It's sophisticated. So to me, it stretches credulity to think that they suddenly were able to develop this on their own.

SIEGEL: How much do you actually know about these particular engines?

ELLEMAN: Well, we're able from the videos to understand approximately what the total amount of power released by the engine is. We know how long it operates for, and from that we can back out the amount of fuel consumed. And with that and some of the visual characteristics of the engine, we're able to determine that it comes from the - what they call the RD-250 family of engines that were developed in the former Soviet Union.

SIEGEL: When you say we know it was - it came from Ukraine or was made in Ukraine, how do you know that?

ELLEMAN: Well, I don't know that it came from Ukraine. In my writing, I think I was very specific in saying that the most likely source would be Ukraine. We've seen the modifications that were incorporated into the engine that the North Koreans are using. I have two independent sources that have said they've seen that engine in Ukraine. It doesn't mean that it came from Ukraine, but it strongly implies that.

But I want to make one point very clear. I don't think the Ukrainian government was involved in this at all. I don't even know that executives from the Yuzhnoye plant would have been involved. This, to me, sounds like criminal gangs were able to access something and export it from either Ukraine or Russia.

SIEGEL: Last month, the factory Yuzhmash said it had not, does not and will not participate in the transfer of potentially dangerous technologies outside Ukraine. You say it could have been a criminal gang. In a way, that seems almost scarier than the notion that a government might have supplied the Koreans with this technology, the idea that it's on the loose and being sold on the black market.

ELLEMAN: Well, again, you know, because there are so many sites where a large number of engines might have been stored or kept, not all of them would be protected to the extent that we would like to see. And the Yuzhmash - Yuzhnoye facilities are not too far away from the area where Russian separatists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian armed forces are actually fighting, so undoubtedly there would be a number of criminal elements.

And we know from the past in the 1990s that a number of Russian missile technology left Russia and ended up in North Korea. And we know that there were North Korean agents seeking missile technology from Yuzhnoye in 2012 because they were arrested by the Ukrainian government.

SIEGEL: Just curious - if, in fact, these engines were transported from somewhere in Ukraine near Russia to North Korea, how would they get - how would you do that? Would you send them by truck? Would you fly them somewhere? How would they move?

ELLEMAN: You could move them in any one of those methods. So the actual engine could fit into a - you know, like a wooden crate 1 meter by 1 meter by 2 meters. So you could pack them into, you know, a large aircraft. You could put them in the back of trucks. You could put them on trains. So, you know, the possibilities are almost endless. For me, the big question going forward is how many of these engines were actually transferred? And I just don't have any information to suggest that it's a small number or a large number.

SIEGEL: Michael Elleman is a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Thanks for talking with us today.

ELLEMAN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLENDERBODIES SONG, "OPAL OCEAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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