Is North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM Blowback?

Blowback is an intelligence community term for the unintended negative consequences that follow the pursuit of policy conducted for reasons of state. For an economist, I suppose, they would be a type of externality. The concept was popularised by Chalmers Johnson following the onset of The War on Terror in 2001.

Johnson himself described it like so

“Blowback” is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people

I have been especially interested in the missile propulsion elements of North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM. It appears that the booster engine of the Hwasong-14 ICBM is based on the Soviet RD-250 engine, a point especially emphasised by Michael Elleman and Norbert Brugge. In my early discussion of the topic I pointed out the Ukrainian, not necessarily Russian, origins of the RD-250.

Elleman has just published a superb paper at The International Institute for Strategic Studies on the topic. I have not yet studied the paper carefully, so I withhold comment, but I have read a New York Times article based on it and I want to make two points about the article.

I stress I am speaking of the article, not the Elleman paper.

The article states,

The engines were so powerful that a single missile could hurl 10 thermonuclear warheads between continents

One must be careful here. North Korea’s Pektusan engine, that powers the first stage of the Hwasong-14, looks very much to be the RD-250 however the Soviet ICBM in question was powered by a cluster of three twin cambered RD-250 engines, a configuration known as the RD-251.

The Hwasong-14 has just the one booster engine. The impression the sentence above leaves one is that North Korea can power an ICBM with the throw weight of the SS-9, which it cannot. Furthermore, the SS-9 did have a MIRVed version but that consisted of 3, 2 to 3 MT yield, warheads not 10. The SS-9 had a throw weight of 3 to 5 tonnes.

Now that I have that off my chest, we get to the really interesting part.

As wrote previously the RD-250 was designed by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and manufactured by the Yuzhny Machine Building Plant. The Times report emphasises this

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…

…Bolstering his conclusion, he added, was a finding by United Nations investigators that North Korea tried six years ago to steal missile secrets from the Ukrainian complex. Two North Koreans were caught, and a U.N. report said the information they tried to steal was focused on advanced “missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems.”
Investigators now believe that, amid the chaos of post-revolutionary Ukraine, Pyongyang tried again

If you take the view, and there’s good evidence for this, that the revolution or coup, depending upon your point of view, that ousted Viktor Yanukovych was organised to no small degree by the United States in order to contain Russia then we are lead to a most unhappy conclusion.

North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM is blowback.

Notice that throughout most of the Obama administration Washington dithered on North Korea, even elevating that into a policy known as “strategic patience.”

Now it is Team Obama that are the foreign policy experts, frequently appearing on the airwaves in their new self-appointed role as Monday night quarterback. With experts like that who needs Trump.

Finally, the SS-9 represented the first instance of Minuteman vulnerability because the 8K67 warhead (singe warhead version) had a yield of 10MT and the MIRV 8K67P warheads, as noted, had a yield of2 to 3MT. That, it was argued, made Minuteman Launch Control Centres vulnerable.

The solution to this was the redundant internetting of Minuteman LCCs, which kind of was a step on the road toward the internet.

A small, small world indeed.