• Citing “newly uncovered documents,” The Washington Post reports that Russian scientists in the 1990s may have provided North Korea the designs for its newest missiles.
  • The report suggests the US could have prevented the transfer of these designs had it granted investors a waiver to embark upon a joint venture with Russia to turn old submarine-launched missiles into space boosters.
  • One expert says the UN’s latest economic sanctions are unlikely to stop the North’s missile program because Pyongyang has slowly learned how to manufacture the parts needed to build the missiles.

Russian scientists in the 1990s may have provided North Korea the designs for its newest missiles, The Washington Post reported last week, citing “newly uncovered documents.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, scientists who helped build Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons were in need of money and without other prospects, The Post reported. When a joint venture with US investors to turn submarine-launched missiles into space boosters failed, Russian scientists at the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau sought other avenues.

In 1992, about 60 scientists and their family members were arrested at a Moscow airport trying to fly to Pyongyang to work as consultants, according to The Post. But US, Russian, and South Korean officials think some eventually reached the North.

Now, more than two decades later, Pyongyang is successfully launching missiles that appear eerily similar to the old Soviet missile designs, The Post reported.

The Hwasong-10, test-fired in June 2016, seems to have the same engine and design as the Soviet R-27 Zyb, as does the Pukguksong-1, tested in August 2016, the report says.

The North has begun to develop and successfully test the missiles in the past year because it was "recently able to acquire machine tools that were state-of-the-art in the 1990s," David Wright, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Post.

"Once you have the plans and are able to get your hands on the materials and the right kinds of tools, you have a real leg up," he added.

In addition to getting some parts on the black market through China, "North Korea can at this point build a lot of its machine tools," Wright told Business Insider.

NOrth Korea missile launch kim may 2017

Foto: Kim inspects the Hwasong-12 in May. source KCNA via Reuters

The North, once the industrial hub of the Koreas, has slowly obtained the knowledge and materials since acquiring the Russian designs - and now it's paying off, Wright said.

Wright says this is why economic sanctions the UN imposed on North Korea late last month won't hurt Pyongyang's missile program.

"I think tougher sanctions will make them cut back on some things, like gas available for cars and heating," Wright said, but "they will not solve the missile problem."

How it could have been prevented

North Korea's missile buildup may have been prevented if the US had granted American investors a waiver of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Kyle Gillman, a former executive of the US-Russia venture, told The Post.

The treaty, known as SALT, limited how many nuclear weapons the US and Russia could stockpile. The US's decision not to grant the waiver allowed the Russian scientists at the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau to then partner with North Korea, the Post report says.

"We just needed to be creative, and try and win the peace," Gillman told The Post. "But our government and military and intelligence agencies were shortsighted."

Wright agreed that North Korea's buildup could have been avoided.

He told Business Insider that at the time, the US felt it had "a lot of stuff going on, and it kind of slipped through cracks."

"You didn't have the right people thinking about this at the right time," Wright said, adding that Russia was also partly to blame for letting the technology out.