Was Kim Jong-un’s ‘historic’ missile recycled Russian weapon technology?
The powerful intercontinental missile tested by North Korea late last year is “highly likely” to have been built with foreign blueprints or parts, according to a new technical analysis that describes several similarities between Pyongyang’s new missile and ones built by the Soviet Union decades ago.
The alleged foreign help – the nature of which is unclear – could explain why North Korea apparently was able to skip months or even years of preliminary testing normally associated with new missile systems, the report by US and German experts says.
The missile dubbed Hwasong-15 had never been seen publicly until its successful maiden test on November 28, when it flew 2,780 miles (4,474km) above Earth in a nearly vertical trajectory before splashing into the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea. The 75-foot-tall (23 metres) colossus was one of two long range missiles to appear abruptly on North Korean launch pads last year, and the first with sufficient range to strike any US city.
Intelligence agencies have long believed that North Korea incorporated Soviet designs in many of its missiles, including a submarine-launched missile successfully tested in 2016. But experts have been mystified over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s rapid gains in long-range missile technology, including back-to-back successful tests of two different long-range missiles last year. After the November 28 launch, Kim boasted that he had realised “the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”.
The new report builds an elaborate though partly circumstantial case linking North Korea’s newest missile to Soviet designs dating as far back as the mid-1960s. The evidence includes striking similarities between the Hwasong-15 and a family of Soviet-era missiles, including one that was developed by Russian engineers but abandoned before production began, according to the report prepared for Jane’s Intelligence Review, a British-based journal that focuses on international security threats.
“It is highly likely that North Korea made use of external knowledge, technology, or hardware, in the development of the Hwasong-15 ICBM,” states the report, written by Markus Schiller, a Munich-based space technology analyst, and Nick Hansen, an imagery specialist with a 47-year career with US intelligence.
Based on computer modelling and images of the North Korean missile, the researchers concluded that foreign support “was derived from the Soviet-era ballistic missile programme”, though it is unclear exactly when or how the transfer took place.
The researchers found, for example, that the North Korean missile’s size and shape are similar to the UR-100, a two-stage solid-fuel missile built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, with a few differences. Its engine shares the same distinctive dual-nozzle configuration as the Soviet-made RD-250 missile engine first built in 1965, and appears to use the same potent fuel mixture – a high-energy liquid propellent that only recently came into use in North Korea.
The similarities appear to implicate the former Soviet Union as the original source of the technology, and not China or Iran, as some analysts have speculated, the researchers said.
“By any dimension, this looks Soviet to me, not Chinese,” Schiller said.
While the similarities with the UR-100 are striking, the authors posit that the Hwasong-15 may actually be a clone of a different Soviet-era missile that was never brought into full production. That missile, the R-37, was developed as part of a competition between two rival missile-design bureaus as the Soviet Union searched for an answer to the Minuteman missile developed by the US in the 1960s. The UR-100 won the competition, and the R-37 – which was similar in size and shape – was cancelled.
Though acknowledging he has no proof, Schiller believes the Hwasong-15 may have been built from parts of the R-37, or a similar Soviet-era missile that was stolen or sold on the black market. Otherwise, he says, it is difficult to explain how the North Koreans could build their new missile so quickly.
US intelligence officials have expressed scepticism about previous claims that North Korea’s newest missiles are imports. A Defence Department statement last August asserted that North Korea “is not reliant on the imports of engines”, but rather possesses the “ability to produce the engines themselves”. US agencies have not ruled out the possibility that missile-engine designs from Russia were passed to North Korea, perhaps by former Soviet scientists who travelled to Pyongyang to work as consultants in the 1990s.
Schiller said it is possible that missile secrets were passed to North Korea in the form of blueprints and scientific expertise, but he suspects missile parts were included in the exchange.
“If you look at any other missile programme, you usually see hundreds of static engine tests,” he said. “With this one, we didn’t seen hundreds. We saw one or two.”
Yet, despite the dearth of known tests, the North Koreans were sufficiently confident of their new missile that they arranged for the maiden launch to occur “in a field, in the middle of the night, with what appeared to be a military crew, in around four hours”, Schiller wrote in the report.
Schiller also noted that, since the November 28 launch, no other Hwasong-15s have been observed publicly. The only exceptions were four purported missiles that were hauled through central Pyongyang in a military parade earlier this month.
Parade missiles, Schiller said, are “nearly always fake.”