WASHINGTON — North Korea’s successful test launch on July 12 of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile equipped to penetrate U.S. missile defenses is most likely the result of technical cooperation sourced to Russia, according to a new think tank report first obtained by NBC News.
The Hwasong-18 missile’s physical dimensions and its flight trajectory data appear “nearly identical” to those at of Russia’s Topol-M ICBM, says the report, authored by Theodore A. Postol, a professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report was written for Beyond Parallel, a project sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense think tank.
The new missile represents a sudden and significant advancement of North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal, according to North Korea’s own pronouncements confirmed by U.S. officials. The rocket is solid-fueled, making it harder for Western intelligence to detect than liquid-propellant ICBMs. The test last month, observed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was the first successful launch of a solid-fueled ICBM. The test also demonstrated the Hwasong-18’s ability to deliver multiple thermonuclear warheads as far as Washington, the report said, and deploy decoy canister countermeasures to evade U.S. missile defenses.
“The sudden appearance of these advanced capabilities is difficult to explain without cooperation from the Russian government and its scientists,” Postol wrote.
Russia’s supplying North Korea with such capabilities would mark a significant escalation of the growing military cooperation between the two countries, as well as violate U.N. Security Council resolutions signed onto by Russia prohibiting support for North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
The U.S. has accused North Korea of supplying Russia with munitions to support its war in Ukraine, with North Korea receiving food and energy from Russia in return. The Treasury Department announced new sanctions this week targeting three entities tied to a network trying to avoid U.S. sanctions and support arms deals between the two countries.
Russia and North Korea have denied the transfer of weapons to Russia. But the two countries, who historically have had friendly relations dating to the Cold War, have made no secret of their increasingly close military collaboration amid a heavy international sanctions regime.
Two weeks after the test, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was welcomed to Pyongyang for the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on July 25, meeting there with Kim. Ahead of Shoigu’s visit, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the visit would help “strengthen Russian-North Korean military ties.”
Kim sent a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, reported by state media Wednesday, touting the “militant friendship and solidarity” established between their countries during the Korean War and saying they are now “demonstrating their invincibility and might in the struggle to smash the imperialists’ arbitrary practices and hegemony.”
"Historically, Russia has always been very transactional and opportunistic on the Korean peninsula, and they see an opportunity here," said Victor Cha, the senior vice president for Asia and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They need the munitions, and North Korea has a lot. They’ve got a 1.1 million-man army. They’ve got a lot of munitions. And North Korea needs ballistic missiles, ballistic missile technology.”
North Korea’s provocations will be a major focus of the coming trilateral summit among the U.S., South Korea and Japan at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, along with China’s aggressive actions in the region. The three allied countries are set to announce a historic plan to bolster mutual security ties, including an intelligence-sharing agreement on missile threats, regular joint military drills and a new three-way crisis hotline, according to senior administration officials.
Kim has ordered a sharp increase in North Korea’s missile production; he toured major munitions factories this week.
“It’s very difficult to get the U.S., Korea and Japan trilaterally together because of all the domestic historical issues,” said Cha, who said he believes the security situation in the region and the war in Ukraine are sparking the trilateral breakthrough. “The war in Ukraine has changed everything. It has changed the way everybody looks at security.”