Kiev – Intelligence agents from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and China are making regular attempts to acquire design data from former Soviet ballistic missile design centers and other defense industrial enterprises in Ukraine and in other former USSR republics in an effort to extend the range of North Korea’s missiles.
Military sources told the Yonhap news agency in the neighboring southern Republic of Korea (ROK) that if North Korea had acquired the data two of its agents were attempting to buy from one Ukrainian defense plant, some of the current missiles in Pyongyang’s arsenal could see their range extended to the point where they could hit targets in the continental U.S.
The two intelligence agents from the DPRK, identified as Ryu Song-Chul and Lee Tae-Kil, were caught by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in July 2011 after they met with a Ukrainian engineer employed at the Production Association Southern Machine-Building Plant—more commonly known as Yuzhmash—in the city of Dnepropetrovsk.
The engineer, who had tipped off the SBU in advance, passed the two agents files of design information with classified markings before the Ukrainian service stepped in to arrest them.
The arrests occurred last July, but it was only last week that a Ukrainian court tried and convicted the two agents, sentencing each of them to eight-year prison terms. Both agents intend to appeal their convictions.
Yuzhmash was once a major production center of ballistic missiles for the Soviet Union. Today, much of the production is geared towards modifying ballistic missile designs into booster rockets that can launch commercial payloads such as communications satellites. However, the company still retains designers and other technical personnel that are fully proficient in the design of intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.
The two DPRK agents had been officially assigned to their country’s trade mission in Minsk, capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus—one of the few trade missions North Korea maintains in the former USSR and Warsaw Pact nations.
Belarus has evolved into a post-Soviet, anti-U.S. dictatorship that is friendly to any nation opposed to Washington’s policies. State arms export agencies in Belarus and other middlemen based in Minsk have been accused several times of serving as conduits for illicit transfers of arms and defense industrial technology to both the DPRK and Iran.
What prompted the Yuzhmash engineer to immediately alert the SBU that the DPRK was attempting to illegally acquire this missile design data is unknown, according to Ukrainian news outlets. “Whether or not the sum [of money] offered was not adequate, or if there were political considerations that caused him to not pass these industrial secrets to his North Korean comrades, or if there were ideological reasons involved is not known,” reported Ukrainian news site GudVin.
One of the key pieces of design data that the DPRK agents were trying to obtain regarded the fuel control system used in different Yuzhmash designs. Ballistic missile rocket motors that run on liquid chemical propulsion require extremely powerful fuel pumps that can push through a large volume of propellant in very short periods of time without breaking apart or otherwise interrupting the fuel flow.
The fuel system for liquid-propelled missiles is one of the key “single points of failure” that countries encounter when trying to develop a ballistic missile program, according to U.S. defense analysts.
The recent failed test launches by the DPRK are “symptomatic of defects in the fuel control system,” said one analyst. In both of the most recent tests—one in April 2009 and another in April of this year—the Unha-2 (2009) and Unha-3 (2012) missiles failed to reach orbit.
Western intelligence officers familiar with arms trafficking activity in Ukraine state that the country is a “target-rich environment” for nations such as the DPRK and China that use weapon systems that are of Russian design or utilize Russian-made on-board systems. Many of the vital subcomponents for Russian weapons platforms were developed or manufactured in Ukraine. Still other systems can be overhauled and modernized in Ukraine at a lower cost than if procured from Russia.
Agents acting on behalf of Chinese intelligence services have also been caught by the SBU on several occasions while trying to secure classified information from Ukrainian defense industrial and test facilities. A Russian national living in Ukraine, Aleksandr Yermakov, was tried and convicted in February 2011 for working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) foreign intelligence service.
Yermakov and his son had been working with the PRC’s intelligence services and making regular trips to China. His conviction centered around efforts to steal classified information on the design of Ukraine’s Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex, or NITKA.
NITKA, located in the Crimea near the city of Saki and built in Soviet times, was developed to train carrier pilots to fly the Sukhoi Su-33 and Mikoyan MiG-29K carrier-capable fighters. Today it is the only facility of its kind that can properly prepare pilots to launch from and trap back aboard deck on one of the two Kuznetsov-class ski jump-configured takeoff ramp aircraft carriers built in the USSR in the 1980s.
China acquired one of these carriers, the Varyag, more than two decades ago from Ukraine and has conducted sea trials of the ship after almost 20 years of re-fitting, but no Chinese carrier pilots have yet successfully conducted an arrested landing or even a “touch-and-go” test run on the ship while at sea.
Building an analogue of this training center in China is necessary for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carrier program, which is why the MSS recruited Yermakov to steal design data from NITKA, experts said.