KYIV, Ukraine—In 2011, Denys Antipov, who was then a Korean language student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, received an unusual request from the Security Service of Ukraine—the country’s successor agency to the KGB.
The Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, needed Antipov’s help in a delicate counterintelligence operation. In an undercover sting, the security agency had nabbed two North Korean spies trying to steal rocket technology from Ukrainian engineers at the KB Yuzhnoye Design Office in the city of Dnipro, called Dnipropetrovsk at that time.
“We believe that this anti-Ukrainian campaign was provoked by the Russian special services,” Oleksandr Turchynov of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council says.
Ukrainian counterintelligence officials needed a Korean interpreter for the interrogation and trial of the captured North Koreans. Suddenly, Antipov—who is today 28 years old and a Korean language instructor at his alma mater—was thrust into a spy drama of Tom Clancy proportions, which is now at the center of a geopolitical crisis for Ukraine.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS, released a report last Monday that said North Korea’s recent rapid leap forward in liquid-propellant rocket engine technology—which led to the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States—was likely due to its purchase of modified variants of mothballed, Soviet-era RD-250 rocket engines smuggled out of either Russia or Ukraine.
An article last Monday in The New York Times quoted the author of the IISS report, Michael Elleman, as saying: “It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine—probably illicitly. … The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried.”
Referring to the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Office, the Times article reported: “Mr. Elleman makes a strong circumstantial case that would implicate the deteriorating factory complex and its underemployed engineers.”
The Times article and the IISS report sparked a flurry of impassioned denials from Ukrainian officials. And for good reason.
Any proof of Ukrainian complicity on North Korea’s missile program would irreparably damage U.S.-Ukrainian relations. And the timing couldn’t be worse for Kyiv—an American arms deal that Ukraine has sought since Russia launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 is now on President Donald Trump’s desk for final approval.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko posted a statement on his Facebook page in which he both denounced the Times report as inaccurate and said he had ordered a probe into the accusations.
“No matter how absurd the charges against Ukraine may look, being responsible partners, we must carefully verify the information published by The New York Times on alleged deliveries of missile engines or related technology to North Korea,” Poroshenko wrote in the Facebook post.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman called the Times story a “provocation.” And Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, attributed last Monday’s reports to a Russian intelligence cabal.
“Ukraine has never supplied rocket engines or any kind of missile technology to North Korea,” Turchynov said. “We believe that this anti-Ukrainian campaign was provoked by the Russian special services to cover up their own participation in the North Korean nuclear and missile programs.”
The Yuzhmash factory at the heart of the controversy published a statement to its website Wednesday, saying the factory “expresses sincere regret over the article, which was published by The New York Times’ provocative nature, based on an incompetent ‘expert’ opinion.”
The Yuzhmash factory is the main manufacturing facility for the KB Yuzhnoye Design Office, both of which are located in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro.
In his IISS report on North Korea’s missile program, Elleman analyzed photographs published by North Korea of missile engines it ground-tested in September and March prior to flight tests on Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in May and July. (The Hwasong-14 is an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to reach the U.S. mainland.)
Based on design characteristics observed in those photographs, Elleman ruled out liquid-propellant engines from any source other than the former Soviet Union. Out of that narrowed range of possibilities, only the RD-250 had the performance and external features to match recent North Korean tests.
“No other country has transitioned from a medium-range capability to an ICBM in such a short time,” Elleman wrote in the IISS report released earlier this month. “What explains this rapid progression? The answer is simple. North Korea has acquired a high-performance liquid-propellant engine (LPE) from a foreign source.”
The RD-250, however, is a two-chamber engine. And the North Korean engines used on its recent Hwasong-12 and -14 ICBMs had single chambers. According to Elleman’s line of thinking, North Korean engineers do not have the expertise on their own to modify RD-250 engines from a double to a single chamber engine.
“Such expertise is available at Russia’s Energomash concern and Ukraine’s KB Yuzhnoye,” Elleman wrote. “One has to conclude that the modified engines were made in those factories.”
Elleman’s premise that modified RD-250 rocket engines were smuggled out of Ukraine or Russia into Pyongyang’s hands is founded, in part, on the premise of lax security at both the Russian and Ukrainian rocket sites.
“Because the RD-250 is no longer employed by operational missiles or launchers, facilities warehousing the obsolete LPEs [liquid-propellant engines] are probably loosely guarded,” Elleman wrote.
He added: “A small team of disgruntled employees or underpaid guards at any one of the storage sites, and with access to the LPEs, could be enticed to steal a few dozen engines by one of the many illicit arms dealers, criminal networks, or transnational smugglers operating in the former Soviet Union.”
Antipov, who is familiar with the SBU’s operations to monitor the rocket production facilities in Dnipro, said Elleman’s assessment is not accurate when it comes to the Yuzhmash factory or the Yuzhnoye Design Office. Both are under constant “external and internal” SBU overwatch, Antipov said.
“You can’t just sell the rocket engine without the government knowing it,” Antipov told The Daily Signal, adding that the SBU’s tight surveillance and its penchant for undercover stings would deter such an audacious plan as Elleman suggested.
“Imagine you’re a scientist and some North Korean guy contacts you trying to bribe you,” Antipov said. “And you know the Security Services of Ukraine is watching you 24/7. You could assume it’s some sort of a check or a test of you.”
In 2011, two North Korean spies, Ryu Sonchelle and Lee Thakel, traveled by train from Minsk, Belarus, to Dnipro under the guise that they were agricultural specialists in Ukraine to study how sunflower seeds are farmed.
“The plan was to come early in the morning from Belarus, cross the border, and after getting the information, return on the same day,” Antipov said. “But, unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, they never made it back.”
Ahead of their trip, the two North Korean agents tried to bribe Ukrainian scientists working at KB Yuzhnoye to hand over classified documents related to the design of solid fuel and liquid engines, fuel supply systems, rocket separation units, relevant computer software, and other specific information that comprised Ukrainian “state secrets.”
But the Ukrainian workers refused the North Koreans’ bribes and reported their entreaties to the SBU. “The scientists were quite patriotic,” Antipov said.
The SBU subsequently set up a sting operation. The North Korean spies were given decoy documents. Then, Ukrainian agents clandestinely observed the agents trying to copy the dummy information with a digital camera. They caught the North Koreans red-handed.
Because the North Korean agents only had access to dummy documents as part of the SBU’s ruse, Antipov explained, there was no chance that they could have surreptitiously managed to get any classified information back to Pyongyang prior to their arrest.
Antipov said one of the North Korean agents spoke Russian fluently, but the other requested an interpreter for his interrogations and trial. Under Ukrainian law an incarcerated foreigner has the right to ask for a government-appointed interpreter.
They were “definitely military,” Antipov said of the North Korean agents, adding: “You can see it in their behavior, and how a person sits, actually. They were military for sure. Of course, they denied everything. At first they asked to be repatriated to the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North Korean regime’s official title].”
“Of course, it was not possible,” Antipov continued. “You can’t just release a burglar from your country. Even if it’s for a cellphone—or an RD-250.”
In July 2012, a Ukrainian court sentenced Sonchelle and Thakel, the two North Korean spies, to eight years in jail for espionage. The two North Koreans remain in Ukrainian custody at a prison in Zhytomyr.
North Korea’s 2011 gambit to steal Ukrainian missile technology was not a one-off event, Antipov said. Rather, it highlighted Pyongyang’s long-standing, dogged effort to steal Ukrainian missile technology.
“There were a number of North Korean attempts to get the secret rocket information from the Yuzhmash factory, they just desperately needed that technology,” Antipov said. “And of course, the Security Service of Ukraine works well to protect our national security and the world’s security as well. And those attempts were stopped.”
North Korea closed its Ukrainian Embassy in January 1992. According to a 2016 report by the National Committee on North Korea, a U.S. think tank, the official reason for the closure was financial belt tightening by Pyongyang after financial support from Moscow dried up in the post-Soviet years.
Yet, some say Ukraine shuttered the embassy in retaliation for repeated attempts by North Korean agents to steal nuclear weapon and missile technology from Ukraine in the ensuing chaos of the immediate post-Soviet years.
“It was a governmental decision that we don’t need a nest of spies in our country,” Antipov said.
A New Chapter
The RD-250 rocket engine was produced at the Ukrainian Yuzhmash factory until 2001, Yuriy Radchenko, head of the State Space Agency of Ukraine, told journalists in Kyiv on Tuesday.
At the Ukrainian facility, the double chamber, liquid-propellant RD-250 engines were mated with the Soviet R-36 ICBM during the Cold War. The engines were also used for the Cyclone 2 and 3 rockets, which Russia used to launch satellites into space until 2006 and 2009, respectively.
After the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, the Ukrainian Yuzhmash factory continued to produce RD-250 engines, but solely for use in space rockets supplied to Russia.
Both the RD-250 engines and the Cyclone rockets “were made at Yuzhmash in the interests of Russia,” Radchenko said. In total, 233 Cyclone rockets were produced in Ukraine and sent to Russia.
Russia cut its orders of the Cyclone rocket in 2006, and the Yuzhmash factory has not found another buyer. Only Russia currently possesses the rockets, all of which are mated with Ukrainian-made RD-250 engines.
Russia has between seven and 20 of the Cyclone rockets stored in unknown locations, Radchenko claimed on Tuesday.
If North Korea did in fact receive modified RD-250 engines from an outside source, Ukraine’s space chief claimed it was from Russia, not Ukraine.
“They [Russia] can supply these engines from the finished rockets to whomever they want,” Radchenko said.
Russia shares a 10.5-mile-long land border and shipping routes into North Korea. In the 1980s and 1990s, Moscow supplied Pyongyang with missile technology for the regime’s Scud, Nodong, and R-27 (Musudan) rockets.
Elleman, the author of the IISS report cited in The New York Times story, later took to Twitter to walk back the quote attributed to him in The New York Times in which he said the engines more likely came from Ukraine than Russia.
“Let me be clear about DPRK’s source of ICBM engine: Yuzhnoye is one of several possible sources, there are other potentials in Russia,” Elleman wrote on Twitter on Aug. 14.
“I don’t believe Ukr gov’t condoned or knew, if the engines were sourced in Ukr. To the contrary, Ukr arrested North Koreans in 2012!” Elleman wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, the U.S. intelligence community refuted Elleman’s finding that North Korea could not have produced on its own the liquid-propellant rocket engines used in recent ICBM tests.
“We have intelligence to suggest that North Korea is not reliant on imports of engines,” one U.S. intelligence official told Reuters. “Instead, we judge they have the ability to produce the engines themselves.”
Michaela Dodge, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, was skeptical about a Russian plot to pin a RD-250 smuggling cabal on Ukraine.
But she said North Korea likely has the technical savvy to produce a rocket engine on par with the RD-250 without having to illicitly purchase the hardware from abroad.
“The North Koreans test a lot and they are far from dumb,” Dodge, who specializes in missile defense, nuclear weapons modernization, and arms control, told The Daily Signal.
“They are not afraid to fail,” Dodge continued. “Funny thing about missile tests, you learn more from failures than successes. So North Koreans could certainly improve a lot, especially if given help—not necessarily involving hardware transfers.”
For his part, Radchenko, the Ukrainian space chief, echoed Elleman’s line of thinking that North Korea’s technological leaps were too far and too fast to have been accomplished autonomously.
“Two years have passed since the beginning of the development of technology until launch, these terms are exceptional,” Radchenko said, referring to North Korea’s missile program. “No one can … implement this project in such terms, even a space power … But they succeeded. They used the finished product. That’s all we can say.”
More than 10,000 Ukrainians have died in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, and about 1.7 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the fighting.
In Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, Ukrainian troops have been engaged in constant combat against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars for more than three years. The war is now static, fought mostly by indirect weapons. Troops on both sides of no man’s land are hunkered down in trenches and in fortified redoubts along the approximately 250-mile-long front line.
The Kremlin denies it is involved in the war.
Due to Russian military aggression in Ukraine, however, relations between Russia and the U.S. nosedived in 2014. The U.S. levied punitive economic sanctions on Moscow for its seizure of Crimea and subsequent proxy war in eastern Ukraine. And since 2014, the U.S. and NATO have built up their military presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression against NATO’s eastern flank.
Ukrainian officials are worried that allegations, or even suggestions, of Ukrainian complicity in North Korea’s missile program could derail a deal for the U.S. to sell Ukraine lethal, defensive weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Front-line Ukrainian troops say U.S. weapons like the Javelin would make a difference on the battlefield, and, more importantly, would deter Russia from more military aggression. Congress has approved the weapons deal, and the departments of Defense and State recently sent Trump a plan to implement it.
The parallel timing of the North Korean missile story with the U.S. weapons proposal entering its final stage of approval has many in Ukraine openly suggesting that the whole North Korean affair is a Russian gambit to sully Ukraine’s reputation and derail U.S. military aid.
“The probability is high that the report in the media could be inspired by our ‘friends’ from Russia because they are interested in lowering the rating of our country in the projects in which we participate,” Radchenko, Ukraine’s space chief, said on Tuesday.
The U.S. reaction to last Monday’s reports has so far been measured. “We’re certainly aware of those reports that have come out,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “That’s an issue that we would take very seriously if that were to be the case.”
Today, Antipov is a combat veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine. From 2015 to 2016 he served as an officer in the Ukrainian army’s 81st Airmobile Brigade, where he commanded a reconnaissance drone platoon. He balked at the notion that the Ukrainian government would willingly authorize or turn a blind eye toward a covert scheme to sell North Korea such valuable technology.
“What is the point for Ukraine to risk not getting international help, and to risk not to get the Javelins?” Antipov said.
He added: “You would risk the whole thing for a few million dollars in engine sales? It doesn’t sound logical to me. Ukraine needs America’s support more than it needs money.”