Problems with the NYT article on Ukrainian rocket engines in North Korea – a detailed analysis

A state media image of North Korea's missile launch in May 2017.

A state media image of North Korea's missile launch in May 2017. 

Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Pavlo Krasnomovets

On Monday, August 14th, the American edition of The New York Times published an article stating that North Korea bought rocket engines on the black market “probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical links to Russia’s missile program.”

This allegation has already been officially denied by the “Ukrainian factory” itself – the “Makarov South Machine Building Plant,” better known as Yuzhmash, as well as by the State Space Agency of Ukraine, to which the enterprise is subordinate, and by the National Security and Defence Council Secretary Olexandr Turchynov.

The editorial board of the Ukrainian IT outlet AIN.UA analyzed the text of The New York Times article, the sources on which it relies, and laid out why the article should not be trusted. Euromaidan Press offers you an English translation.

Introduction. What’s the problem, anyway?

At issue is the North Korean nuclear program, or more precisely its missile component. The atomic bomb has been at the disposal of North Korea since 2006, but it did not have effective means of delivering it. For a long time, North Korea has been working on missiles capable of carrying nuclear charges. Until this year, the country had at its disposal only short-range and medium-range missiles capable of reaching South Korea, Japan, and American bases in Guam. But attempts to create an Intercontinental ballistic missile (range over 5,500 km), capable of hitting targets in the continental US, have consistently failed. Finally, over the past year, North Korea made rapid progress and on 4 July 2017 successfully tested the Hwasong-14 ICBM.

Hwasong-14 launch, 4 July 2017. Photo: missilethreat.csis.org

Hwasong-14 launch, 4 July 2017. Photo: missilethreat.csis.org

Why does The New York Times claim that Ukraine’s Yuzhmash plant is associated with this?

First, we need to understand what the NYT article is based on. This is not an investigation of the paper itself. The article cites “an expert analysis being published Monday and classified assessments by American intelligence agencies.” These classified assessments are mentioned but not elaborated on or quoted.

But the “expert analysis” is in the public domain. The article is “The secret to North Korea’s ICBM success,” published by the British non-profit International Institute for Strategic Studies. Its author is Michael Elleman, an American scientist who originally worked at Lockheed Martin, but also engaged as a missile expert at the UN and other public and private organizations. NYT journalists also must have spoken directly to Elleman, since they cite several of his quotes that are not in the IISS article.

Analysis of the NYT article

Comparison of balance in the IISS source and in the article

The first paragraphs of the NYT article of the IISS study already differ in their judgments, and this difference will persist until the end of both texts.We will mark quotations from The New York Times in yellow, and the quotations from the main source (Michael Elleman’s IISS study) – in blue.

The NYT authors argue that the success of the North Korean program “made possible by black-market purchases of powerful rocket engines probably from a Ukrainian factory with historical ties to Russia’s missile program.” Journalists point only to the Ukrainian source, but the first paragraph of the article on IISS, which is referred to in the NYT is not so categorical. “Michael Elleman shares the first solid evidence that North Korea has acquired a high-performance liquid-propellant engine from illicit networks in Russia and Ukraine,” the editorial introduction states. Elleman further writes in his second paragraph that “the engines were probably acquired through illicit channels operating in Russia and/or Ukraine.”

Later in the text of IISS study, Russia and/or Ukraine are associated with engines that have come to North Korea eight times. In six of them they are considered as equal possibilities. At one point, Elleman connects the model of engines, which he identified, only with Russia. “[…] all of them are associated with the Russian enterprise named after V.P. Glushko, now known as Energomash.” Only in one of the last paragraphs, Elleman points exclusively to Yuzhmash.

But in the NYT article, neither Ellemann himself in his comments to paper nor the journalists of the publication have presented the information in such a balanced way. “It’s likely that these engines came from Ukraine — probably illicitly,” Mr. Elleman said in an interview. “The big question is how many they have and whether the Ukrainians are helping them now. I’m very worried,” the analyst told the journalists.

[Tweet from Elleman’s now deleted account]:

Not misquoted, but my written words best reflect my findings. I DO NOT allege Ukr gov’t involved; xfer is work of Rus/Ukr smugglers

— Mike Elleman (@Elleman_IISS) August 14, 2017

In the NYT article Ukraine’s “Yuzhmash” is singled out seven times as the source of the engines. The alternative Russian source, “NPO Energomash,” is mentioned by the journalists only once.

Step-by-step scrutiny of references and statements

Next, we will analyze the dubious statements and assertions in the NYT article.

1. “Government investigators and experts have focused their inquiries on a missile factory in Dnipro, Ukraine”

In Elleman’s study, there is only one passage that can serve as a source for such a proposition: “In addition, Western experts who visited KB Yuzhnoye Ukraine within the past year told the author that a single-chamber version was on display at a nearby university and that a local engineer boasted about producing it.”

Elleman does not indicate what was the reason for the visit of these “Western experts” to the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau. Whether the experts “focused their inquiries” or not, was the boast specifically about the engines alleged to be used on the North Korean missiles – no such conclusions can be gleaned from this sentence to support the NYT authors’ wording.

2. “During the Cold War, the factory made the deadliest missiles in the Soviet arsenal, including the giant SS-18. It remained one of Russia’s primary producers of missiles even after Ukraine gained independence. “

The corresponding fragment in the IISS study: “The RD-250 was originally designed by the Glushko enterprise of Russia, and produced and incorporated into the first stage of the R-36 (SS-9) ICBM and the Tsiklon-2 satellite launcher by KB Yuzhnoye of Ukraine. The Tsiklon-2 carrier rocket lofted its first satellite into orbit in 1969, with the last of 106 launches occurring in 2006. While Yuzhnoye was responsible for producing the Tsiklon-2 rocket, Russian entities launched the satellite. The relationship survived the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 primarily because of long-standing institutional linkages, and the commercial interests of both enterprises and countries.”

As we can see, in the NYT fragment comes off as being about military missiles. But in fact, the IISS study talks about commercial launches of satellites. The model of such collaboration between enterprises in Russia and those based in Dnipro was used for the Sea Launch project with the Zenit launch vehicle, as well as the RS-20 rocket conversion program in the Dnepr LV produced and launched by the Russian Kosmotras in the past.

Yuzhmash also refutes the statements of journalists: “Yuzhmash not only is not the main producer of missiles for the Russian Federation, but does not supply missiles, their parts and assembly units, including rocket engines. […] Missiles and missile complexes of military use in the years of Ukraine’s independence have not been produced and are not currently being produced by Yuzhmash.” It is worth mentioning that on August 27, 2014, the NSDC adopted a decision to stop the export of space technology to Russia.

3. “But since Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was removed from power in 2014, the state-owned factory, known as Yuzhmash, has fallen on hard times. The Russians canceled upgrades of their nuclear fleet. The factory is underused, awash in unpaid bills and low morale. Experts believe it is the most likely source of the engines that in July powered the two ICBM tests.”

“If North Korea began its quest to identify and procure a new LPE in 2016, the start of the search would have occurred in the same year Yuzhnoye was experiencing the full impact of its financial shortfalls. This is not to suggest that the Ukrainian government was involved, and not necessarily Yuzhnoye executives. Workers at Yuzhnoye facilities in Dnipropetrovsk and Pavlograd were likely the first ones to suffer the consequences of the economic misfortunes, leaving them susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous traders, arms dealers and transnational criminals operating in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.”

The economic difficulties of the Dnipro’s space enterprises after the termination of cooperation with the Russian Federation, the curtailment of the Sea Launch program, the Dnepr program and other activities are the main argument for both the NYT and Ellemen. There are indeed financial difficulties. In 2016, Yuzhmash had an outstanding electricity bill of about UAH 400 million. This debt was repaid by the state after the adoption of amendments to the state budget in 2016 in December (law # 5281). This year the Verkhovna Rada also adopted bill #6600, signed by the President on August 1. In it, Yuzhmash was allocated an additional UAH 50 million to pay off part of the wage arrears.

“Experts believe it is the most likely source of the engines that in July powered the two (North Korean – ed.) ICBM tests.” Although the NYT refers to “experts,” this passage seems based exclusively on Elleman’s words. Opinions of others on this issue are not mentioned. Elleman himself is not so categorical in his study, as well as his tweets.

[Tweet from Elleman’s now deleted account]:

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! 2/2

— Mike Elleman (@Elleman_IISS) August 14, 2017

4. “Bolstering his conclusion, he (Elleman – ed.) added, was a finding by United Nations investigators that North Korea tried six years ago to steal missile secrets from the Ukrainian complex.”

“Pyongyang has many connections in Russia, including with the illicit network that funnelled Scud, Nodong and R-27 (Musudan) hardware to North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. United Nations sanctions imposed on Pyongyang have likely strengthened the Kim regime’s ties to these criminal networks. North Korean agents seeking missile technology are also known to operate in Ukraine. In 2012, for example, two North Korean nationals were arrested and convicted by Ukrainian authorities for attempting to procure missile hardware from Yuzhnoye.”

Ellemann in his text talks about not only an attempt by North Koreans to buy technology from Yuzhnoye, but also about the long-standing relationship of that regime with Russia. In addition, although the attempt to obtain Ukrainian technology did take place, an employee of Yuzhnoye reported it to the Security Service of Ukraine and now the spies are serving their sentence in a Ukrainian prison.

5. “Last month, Yuzhmash denied reports that the factory complex was struggling for survival and selling its technologies abroad, in particular to China. Its website says the company does not, has not and will not participate in “the transfer of potentially dangerous technologies outside Ukraine.”

This paragraph is not from the IISS report but rather from a Popular Mechanics article from June 19. In it, referring to his sources, journalist Anatoly Zak asserts that “Chinese officials asked the Ukrainians to rebuild the very original lunar landing propulsion module (developed for the Soviet lunar program – ed.) using modern materials like new computer technology replacing obsolete electronics in the module’s flight control system” . Here’s how the author of Popular Mechanics piece reacted on Twitter to the NYT article:

At least, the NYT correctly reported on the refutation of the Popular Mechanics article by Yuzhmash, which declared that “it does not participate in any negotiations with China regarding cooperation on the lunar program.”

6. “Norbert Brügge, a German analyst, reported that photos of the engine firing revealed strong similarities between it and the RD-250, a Yuzhmash model.”

In fact, in the publication by Norbert Brügge which The New York Times refers to, the following is said: “It is becoming increasingly likely: The new North Korean engine “Pektusan” is similar to a RD-250 of the KB Glushko.”

It is unclear for what reason the NYT journalists replaced Brügge’s statement that the RD-250 is being developed by the company “NPO Energomash” (KB Glushko) with a mention of Yuzhmash. This exact model of engines is in fact developed and manufactured at the Russian “Energomash” enterprise, as can be seen on the company’s website. Ukraine’s Yuzhmash also used these engines for the Russian Tsiklon carrier rockets, the last of which was manufactured in 2001. The RD-250 have never been delivered by Yuzhmash outside the civilian Tsiklon program since Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

7. The New York Times article also has some minor issues with sloppiness. “Dnipro has been called the world’s fastest-shrinking city. The sprawling factory, southeast of Kyiv and once a dynamo of the Cold War, is having a hard time finding customers.”

In this paragraph, journalists refer to a post by an American travel blogger Megan Starr, who described her impressions of her stay in Dnipro. In mentioning it as “the most rapidly declining city,” Starr links to a 2012 article in the Business Insider. The latter in turn contains a broken link to a UN study. The link in the article does not work but could have easily been linked to directly after a simple Google search.

Conclusions

Despite one of the authors of this New York Times article being a two-time Pulitzer Prize laureate, it contains many inaccuracies and is characterized by a one-sided exposition of even the main source to which it refers.

At the same time, do not forget that the main source itself – the IISS study by Michael Elleman – is based only on the author’s assumptions and reasoning about the possibility that the proposed model of engines (determined by examining similarities in photos) could have come either from Ukraine or from Russia to North Korea. In fact, the author does not provide factual evidence, but merely does not exclude such possibility.

It is worth noting that Yuzhmash, the company singled out by the journalists, has quickly issued a denial in a press release, as have the State Space Agency to which it reports and the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Turchynov. Yuzhmash could not provide the actual data on the presence of RD-250 engines and other parts on its premises when asked by AIN.UA.

Translated by: Igor Slv
Source: ain.ua

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  • zorbatheturk

    The Norks are likely getting their nuclear knowhow from their fellow Stalinist totalitarian cockroach buddies in the Krumlin. North Korea is a Stalinist state. The Norks have got Tokyo worried. As it stands Fat Boy Kim could vaporize Osaka and all the Japs can do is try to get the State Department on speed dial. Not good enough for the sons of the samurai. They will be looking to inflict instant retribution on Pyongyang. That means a Japanese nuclear weapons capability and maybe a seat at the UNSC. The Chicoms will be furious. Too bad. The post-1945 world order is due for a shakeup. Let’s face it, RuSSia must be denuked and split up. The gangster Putin regime is not fit to manage a nuclear arsenal. It is a rogue state no less than the DPRK.

    • Sania

      exuviate crudje, time to come u go in pretty house of madness

      • zorbatheturk

        Suck a cactus shake.

  • Oknemfrod

    Not sure why it’s necessary to analyze the NYT’s article (speculative at best and intentionally mendacious at worst) at length. It has all the hallmarks of a hit piece organized by the Kremlin. To wit, it contains a hodgepodge of dubious innuendos and diversions typical for the Kremlin disinformation operatives, obviously intended to soften and dilute the solid logic of an article published just prior to it by Die Welle, squarely pinpointing Russia as the source of the NK miraculous technical progress.

    Nothing in the NYT’s article makes any logical sense. Yuzhmash hasn’t produced anything ICBM-related since 1993, and speculating that all of a sudden it would sell NK something out of the rusty backyard stash is simply asinine. But even supposing that it had anything ICBM-related to sell, I challenge the authors to describe any plausible logistics that would allow Yuzhmash to deliver giant pieces of hardware surreptitiously to NK half-world away via a marine route (there’s no other between Ukraine and NK) without anyone noticing.

    On the other hand, Russia and NK have a common border. Would it not be a little more logical to assume (a question to the Pulitzer-winning twits) that a straight line is shorter than an arc? What benefit, other than an international political suicide, would Ukraine derive from this kind of thing? On the other hand, Russia is more than interested in diverting international attention from its imperialistic escapades towards something else; and what can serve the purpose better than NK threatening the US with nukes?

    Nobody in the US intelligence community buys into this “Ukraine have NK rockets” nonsense. They know full well that the source of NK’s both nuclear and ICBM capabilities is Russia and nobody else. When this certainty is properly materialized in the Congress, the sanctions the Russians enjoy now will look to them like nirvana. When the dwarfish Kremlin pederast who thinks of his NK schemes as oh so clever is hit with a total embargo and being cut off from SWIFT, he’ll be well advised to make good use of the variety of roulette invented in his sorry semblance of a country.

    • Scradje

      The NYT frequently runs obvious kremtroll articles. It’s never to be trusted. I recall one not long ago alleging persecution of Jews in Ukraine, which for obvious reasons is utter garbage.

      • Oknemfrod

        Very true. As far as the Jewish theme goes, the NYT will swallow any bait hook, line, and sinker, no matter how scurrilous, for no other reason that the hook is shaped as “J”, and eagerly feed on the misguided perception of some Jews, especially of the sovok stock, that the Ukrainians have an inherent anti-Semitic bone. Usually, my response to this sort of nonsense is that if it were true, I wouldn’t exist; but the NYT morons with an agenda have no organ in their bodies to understand it.

      • Sania

        banderlogues, u are still in garbage all together…
        donkeys, when are u working?

        • veth

          RUSSKI TROLL, FINISH YOUR KINDERGARTEN………….

          • Sania

            hohlopiteck, I really hate bastardje, not u

          • zorbatheturk

            LOL.

      • veth
  • Tony

    Here the Ukrainian manufacturer explains that they stopped making that type of rocket decades ago but Russia still stocks it and given Russia’s friendly relations with north Korea and Russia’s history of lying, it becomes obvious that this is a smart piece payed for by Russia.
    https://www.unian.info/politics/2083681-russia-has-all-grounds-opportunities-to-supply-engines-for-nkorean-missiles-ukraines-state-space-agency.html

    Oh and, to NYT’s eternal shame, it’s not the first time russia payed for their lip service:
    http://sovietholodomor.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/4/5/15453416/871866675.jpg

    Check again NYT, 5+ million dead!

  • Murf

    If it had not been run in the NYT I would have said it was a Putin Troll posting like we see all the time.
    A whole lot of “Could Haves” and “possibleys”and just out right idol speculation with no facts to back it up.
    it used to be that the New York times was one of the most power media outlets in the Western world.
    They could make or break anyone.
    Now they have been reduced to running Kremlin disinformation like a supermarket tabloid
    How the mighty have fallen.

    • Oknemfrod

      >If it had not been run in the NYT I would have said it was a Putin Troll posting like we see all the time.<

      It was a Putin troll (or, more likely, a special-ops FSB team materialized into one) by the proxy of the NYT. The latter was successfully baited – not the first time, not the last – to publish a piece full of asinine speculations and innuendos whose fallacy could be made obvious just by stepping back a bit and applying a tad of fact checking and logic. But nooooo … they have to be there first with a piece of hot potato "news" just in case. It's not clear whether it is mere foolishness or journalistic zeal or covetousness or all of the above causing them to bite on the nibble time and again.

  • veth

    THESE ARE RUSSKI ROCKETS IN NORTH KOREA………….

  • zorbatheturk

    Big cutbacks to journalists and newsroom staff at the MSM have led to declining quality of news. I think News Corp have announced further cutbacks only last week. The Guardian is begging for donations on its website. Less funds, less resources, crappier journalists = more fake news slips through as editors seek to fill space and generate clicks for advertisers.

    In 1982 the KGB spread a fake news story in an Indian newspaper suggesting the CIA invented AIDS…

    • Sania

      zombie the durk, where did u loose the Siam bastardje brother?

      • zorbatheturk

        Bendover, Putin is coming.