Posted tagged ‘North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile’

Remote Textile Plant May Secretly Fuel North Korea’s Weapons

September 27, 2017

Remote Textile Plant May Secretly Fuel North Korea’s Weapons, New York Times, September 27, 2017

A suspected production site for an advanced rocket fuel known as UDMH in Hamhung, North Korea. The kidney-shaped ponds near the bottom of the image appear designed to hold large amounts of wastewater, consistent with UDMH production.

Asked how North Korea could have so extensively developed this fuel without apparent outside notice, Mr. Lewis said outside analysts too often saw the country as primitive and backward.

“If you watch them in satellite photos and read their technical publications, it looks like a totally different country,” he said.

He added, sighing, “We’re in full-scale denial about North Korea’s capabilities.”


In the remote North Korean city of Hamhung, separated from the capital by vast, jagged mountains, an inconspicuous chemical plant may be secretly fueling the growing missile array that threatens the United States.

Researchers think that the plant is producing a specialized rocket fuel known as UDMH, which is used in the long-range missile launches that have escalated tensions between North Korea and the United States.

This would settle an esoteric but crucial debate among North Korea watchers, and not to Washington’s favor.

Some have argued that North Korea cannot produce the fuel, implying that the country imported it from Russia or China. Those countries could then be pressured to cut off exports, grounding North Korea’s missiles without firing a shot.

But the new finding, produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury University, suggests that North Korea has mastered UDMH production, closing off one of the last avenues for outside curbs on the country’s increasingly sophisticated weapons programs.

Though North Korea may have previously relied on foreign assistance in obtaining or making the fuel, as some analysts believe, it no longer appears to need the help.

A photo from North Korea’s state news agency in 2010 purporting to show Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader at the time, at the February 8 Vinalon Plant in Hamhung. The plant is suspected of making missile fuel. Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters

Short of war or the country’s collapse, he added, “There’s nothing to stop this program from becoming a monster.”

The finding is based on satellite imagery, a technical analysis of UDMH production methods, information from a North Korean official who defected, and a set of obscure North Korean technical documents.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the Middlebury center’s East Asia program, had been hunting for weeks for hints of UDMH production.

“There are no real, obvious signatures for it,” he said, because it can be made with common chemicals like chlorine and ammonia using a variation of a process developed in 1906. India, while quietly developing its missile program in the 1970s, had produced UDMH in an old sugar factory.

The breakthrough came when his team found and translated a set of highly technical articles in an official North Korean science journal, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, that referred to the fuel.

The articles, which ran between 2013 and 2016, discussed mundane matters like managing highly toxic wastewater, a notorious problem in UDMH production. But they betrayed suspiciously sophisticated knowledge. One explored methods for improving purity, crucial in advanced missiles.

“They don’t read like this is a speculative or nascent endeavor,” Mr. Lewis said. “They read like this is a problem they’ve been working on for a while,” describing problems a country would encounter only after producing large quantities of the fuel.

Another state news agency photo was said to show the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in July. The fuel UDMH makes such long-range weapons possible. Credit Korean Central News Agency, via Associated Press

It was an odd location for a highly trained rocket fuel specialist to work. The plant normally produces vinalon, a cheap synthetic material sometimes called “juche” fiber — a reference to North Korea’s tenet of juche, or self-reliance — that is often used in North Korean textiles and uniforms.

But it had long been, Mr. Lewis said, “our No. 1 candidate for UDMH production.”

His team had initially flagged the plant after scrutinizing, in painstaking detail, satellite images of Hamhung for clues.

The remote city is not an obvious home for sensitive military sites. Sitting on the country’s eastern coast, it is exposed to airstrikes, like the American bombing missions that devastated it in the Korean War.

But Ko Chong-song, a North Korea official who defected in the early 1990s, indicated in a 2001 book that it was the center of secret military chemical work. The Central Intelligence Agency had suspected as much since at least 1969, when it published a secret assessment of chemical production in Hamhung.

Now, Mr. Lewis’s team, looking again at the plant, noticed two unusually large wastewater pools, which aligned with standard UDMH production methods — and with the paper describing wastewater challenges. And Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, they found, had made a series of trips to the plant, underscoring its importance.

“That’s about as clear-cut as it gets,” Mr. Lewis said.

While the finding reveals important information about the extent of North Korea’s progress, it may come too late for the United States to act.

The country has most likely already stockpiled enough fuel to fight an extended war, Mr. Lewis said. And the fuel is designed to remain potent for years. Soviet UDMH lasted so long that, after the country collapsed, the United States had to help de-fuel its ICBMs.

Asked how North Korea could have so extensively developed this fuel without apparent outside notice, Mr. Lewis said outside analysts too often saw the country as primitive and backward.

“If you watch them in satellite photos and read their technical publications, it looks like a totally different country,” he said.

He added, sighing, “We’re in full-scale denial about North Korea’s capabilities.”

Trump, Putin, Xi: Talking fades to shows of force

July 31, 2017

Trump, Putin, Xi: Talking fades to shows of force, DEBKAfile, July 31, 2017

(Please see also, Haley Says ‘No Value’ in Another UN Resolution Against North Korea: ‘The Time for Talk Is Over’. — DM)

The message from Beijing was clear: The threat to Chicago and Los Angeles would have to be dealt with by the White House in Washington, not Beijing.


Over the weekend, three world leaders, US president Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping stepped off the diplomatic path over their differences on world issues and switched to displays of military might.

In a show of force after North Korea’s two ICBM tests, two US B-1B bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons, escorted by South Korean and Japanese fighters, took off from Guam Saturday, July 29 and cut across the Korean peninsula. There was no word on whether they entered North Korean skies.

Further west, US Vice President Mike Pence toured East European capitals. Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, he assured “our Baltic allies” – as well as Georgia and Montenegro, his next destinations: “We are with you and will stand with you on behalf of freedom.”  He said that the president would soon sign the latest round of sanctions voted on by Congress, since “Russia’s destabilizing activities and support for rogue regimes and its activities in Ukraine are unacceptable.”

Shortly after President Donald Trump criticized China over failing to deal with North Korea, President Xi Jinping in a general’s uniform viewed a huge military parade Sunday marking the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary. Xi is the PLA’s commander in chief. Whereas the annual parade usually takes place in Beijing, this one was staged at the remote Zhurihe military base in Inner Mongolia., with the participation of 12,000 soldiers, 100 bombers and fighters and a display of 600 weapons systems, 40 percent of them new products of China’s arms industries.
“The world isn’t safe at the moment,” the Chinese president told his people. “A strong army is needed more than ever.”

The Russian president meanwhile showcased his naval might in a huge parade of vessels stretching from the Dnieper River in Moscow to Saint Petersburg, through the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, to Crimea on the Black Sea and up to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus.  Taking part were 50 warships and submarines.

Standing on the deck of the presidential warship as it sailed past the Kremlin’s walls, Putin congratulated the Russian navy on its great advances.

He then disembarked, headed to his office and ordered 755 U.S. diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 1, in retaliation for the new round of sanctions against Russia ordered by the US Congress. More than 1,000 people are currently employed at the Moscow embassy and three US consulates in Russia.

“We waited for quite some time that maybe something will change for the better, had much hope that the situation will somehow change, but, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon,” Putin said. “It is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered.” He added menacingly that there are many areas of Russian-American cooperation whose discontinuation would be harmful to the US. “I hope we don’t have to go there,” he said.

These muscle-flexing steps by the three world powers add up to an ominous shift from their brink-of-cold war diplomatic interaction to a new level with the potential for tipping over into limited military clashes.

The penny has finally dropped for Trump that President Xi has no intention of cracking down on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, even though he declared after a successful second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that “the US mainland is without our striking range.”

The message from Beijing was clear: The threat to Chicago and Los Angeles would have to be dealt with by the White House in Washington, not Beijing.

Xi may accept that the US president may eventually be forced to take some military action against North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities. But he may also be counting on such action being a one-off, like the 59-US Tomahawk missile barrage that hit the Syrian air base of Shayrat on April 7.  Because that dramatic strike was not the start of an organized campaign against the regime in Damascus, it failed to unseat Bashar Assad and in fact made him stronger. Once America has vented its anger, the Chinese president hopes its military offensive against Kim will be over and done with.

For six months, Putin waited to see whether Trump was able to beat down the media-boosted war waged against his presidency by political and intelligence enemies at home, much of it focused on the Russian dimension. His patience with the US president and his troubles at home is clearly at an end.

On Sunday, July 30, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the new sanctions “completely weird and unacceptable,” adding “If the US side decides to move further towards further deterioration we will answer, we will respond in kind. We will mirror this. We will retaliate,” he stressed.

The gloves have clearly come off for the ramping up of friction among the three powers in the various world flashpoint arenas, whether in Europe, the Far East, or other places.