Ukraine is virtually an “anything goes” zone for American entrepreneurs – as well as for people like the North Koreans. That idea has been reinforced by news reports that a Ukrainian factory sold North Korea rocket engines for intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Pyongyang wants to arm with nuclear warheads so it can threaten the United States as well as peace in its region.
In 2014, Ukraine had a piece of its territory, Crimea, sawed off by Russia and parts of its east occupied by Ukrainian rebels backed by Russian military support. After the initial conflict, a low-boil state of war persists, faded from the daily headlines in the U.S. at least. In the absence of attention, the country has become something of a Wild West entrepot of black-market weapons supply.
Military observers have been curious about how North Korea, which put into orbit in recent months two long-range ICBMs, was able to get past some of America’s heretofore relatively successful efforts to sizzle its burgeoning missile-launching capacities. “The rapid nature of how they’ve been able to come to that capability is something, frankly, that has surprised both the United States and the world,” said former CIA Director Leon Panetta on CBS on Sunday.
Ukrainian technology and a specific Ukrainian factory now appear to be the origin of the new North Korean surge. The missiles are called by the North Koreans Hwasong-14s, apparently powered by Ukrainian-made RD-250 engines, and they are projected to be able to reach Guam, Alaska and who knows where else if their trajectories are appropriately programmed.
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The Ukrainian factory is located in Dnipro, pretty much on the line between Ukrainian-controlled territory and Russian-supported rebel territory. It is called Yuzhmash, and North Korean cooperation with it has been going on for about two years, counter to Ukrainian government denials. It is also likely that Ukrainians have been helping the North Koreans with the technology involved, in North Korea itself.
For its part, the Yuzhmash factory denies any wrongdoing. “Any transfer of technology to other countries for the organization of production of rocket and space technology is, in the opinion of Yuzhmash, inexpedient,” it declares on its website. “Aware of its responsibility, Yuzhmash has not participated, does not participate and will not participate in any cooperation involving the transfer of potentially dangerous technologies outside Ukraine.”
Ukraine is a snakepit of runaway business transactions. It is a pity that an effective CIA element was also not more active along with American businesspersons in the snakepit and able to head off sales of engines and technology to the North Koreans. It would have been worth buying up underemployed Yuzhmash’s production and capacity to keep it out of the hands of Pyongyang.