U.S. intelligence and experts believe North Korea's rapid advancement in missile technology is linked to black-market deals made with a financially burdened Ukrainian factory that has historical ties to Russia's missile program.
According to the New York Times, a study by missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Michael Elleman, explains how North Korea's missile program has advanced by leaps and bounds despite a string of catastrophic failures.
Experts said that North Korea's July 28 intercontinental ballistic missile launch proved that the rogue communist country could strike U.S. cities such as Denver or Chicago. After a July 4 missile test from North Korea, experts said it could only reach Hawaii or Alaska.
On Aug. 8, U.S. intelligence officials reported that North Korea had developed the capability to attach miniature nuclear warheads to their ICBMs. According to officials, this put North Korea two years ahead of where experts previously thought they would be in terms of missile technology.
After North Korea's missile failures, wrote Elleman, North Korea reportedly changed their supplier in the past two years. Analysts who studied the photos of Kim Jong Un inspecting the new rocket motors noted that they were were the same designs that once powered the Soviet Union’s missile fleet.
According to the Times, the "engines were so powerful that a single missile could hurl 10 thermonuclear warheads between continents."
The Times reported that government investigators and experts narrowed their focus to a missile factory in Dnipro, Ukraine, called Yuzmash. This factory is on the edge of where Russia is fighting a "low-level war" to claim part of the country of Ukraine.
According to the Times, Yuzmash created one of the deadliest missiles ever produced during the cold war, the SS-18. Yuzmash continued to supply Russia with missiles even after Ukraine gained independence.
After the removal of Ukraine's pro-Russian president in 2014, however, the factory fell on hard times. The Russians canceled their orders for their nuclear fleet, and the factory lacked the income to stay afloat. Experts believe the mix of unpaid bills and low morale made them susceptible for the sale of missile technology to North Korea.
“It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine — probably illicitly,” Elleman told the Times. “The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried.”
Elleman said that the United Nations released a report that North Korean agents had been caught attempting to steal secrets from Yuzmash, including “missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems.” Elleman said he believed that during the chaos of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, North Korea attempted to obtain the missile technology again.
Yuzmash, however, denied any sales to foreign governments in a statement on its website.
"Aware of its responsibility, YUZHMASH have not participated, does not participate and will not participatet [sic] in any cooperation involving the transfer of potentially dangerous technologies outside Ukraine," wrote Yuzmash.
The Times reported that U.S. officials disbelieve Yuzmash's claims, though they believe that Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko had no knowledge of, nor control over Yuzmash's activities within the complex.