The secret to Kim’s success? Some experts see Russian echoes in North Korea’s missile advances

There is no record of Pyongyang’s obtaining blueprints for the Russian missile engine, and experts disagree on whether it ever did so. But the discovery of similarities has focused new attention on a question that has dogged U.S. analysts for at least the past two years: How has North Korea managed to make surprisingly rapid gains in its missile program, despite economic sanctions and a near-universal ban on exports of military technology to the impoverished communist state?

.. Many weapons experts say North Korea’s startling display of missile prowess is a reflection of the country’s growing mastery of weapons technology, as well as its leader’s fierce determination to take the country into the nuclear club. But others see continuing evidence of an outsize role by foreigners, including Russian scientists who provided designs and know-how years ago, and the Chinese vendors who supply the electronics needed for modern missile-guidance systems.

.. “My first question would be, ‘What else have they got?’ ”

.. On Oct. 15, 1992, police detained 60 Russian missile scientists, along with their families, as they prepared to board a plane for North Korea.

.. Under questioning, the scientists confessed that they had been hired as a group to help the North Koreans build a modern missile fleet. In those early days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little work for Russia’s elite weapons scientists and little pay to help them feed and clothe their families.

.. North Korea also obtained sensitive nuclear technology from Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

.. “North Korea’s ballistic missiles, especially its long-range missile project, were often considered a joke because of an unusual number of test failures,” Kampani said.

.. The jokes all but stopped after North Korea achieved a series of technical breakthroughs in surprisingly rapid succession. Just in the past four years, Pyongyang has launched satellites into orbit and successfully tested one missile that can be fired from a submarine

.. “The consensus has been that North Korea’s program — missile as well as nuclear — is mostly indigenous,” said Laura Holgate, a top adviser on nonproliferation to the Obama administration who stepped down in January as head of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Vienna. “They continue to seek to import commercial dual-use technologies for their weapons programs, but the design and innovation is homegrown.”

.. shown in independent analyses to be a modified version of a Russian missile commonly known as the R-27 Zyb. North Korea is believed to have obtained the Russian blueprint in the 1990s and to have spent years working on prototypes, current and former U.S. officials said.

.. “It is a mistake to think that this is really a hermit kingdom that is cut off and doesn’t have access to the Internet,” Cohen said. “They have a lot of disadvantages, but the biggest part of the government economy is their nuclear and missiles program, so the smartest folks they have are directed to do this work.

“My fear,” he added, “ is that people underestimate them.”