On Friday, North Korea launched yet another ICBM on a test run taking it over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. This one traveled more than 2,300 miles, further than the distance to Guam had they wanted to strike it. There’s increasing consensus that Kim’s missiles could reach the continental United States if he chose to take the shot.
Over the course of the debate as to what we should about this, a great deal of attention has been paid to a couple of things. One is the miniaturization of Kim’s increasingly powerful nukes and whether or not he can fit them on his rockets. The second is the advanced designs of the ICBMs themselves and how he mastered the technology so fast. But there’s a third factor I hadn’t been considering until I began reading some coverage of the question at the Boston Globe. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to hurl a missile that far and the fuel required to power such a flight is both volatile and hard to manufacture. Where did Kim get it?
When North Korea launched long-range missiles this summer, and again on Friday, demonstrating its ability to strike Guam and perhaps the US mainland, it powered the weapons with a rare, potent rocket fuel that US intelligence agencies believe initially came from China and Russia.
The US government is scrambling to determine whether those two countries are still providing the ingredients for the highly volatile fuel and, if so, whether North Korea’s supply can be interrupted. Among those who study the issue, there is a growing belief that the United States should focus on the fuel, either to halt it, if possible, or to take advantage of its volatile properties to slow the North’s program.
But it may well be too late. Intelligence officials believe that the North’s program has advanced to the point where it is no longer as reliant on outside suppliers, and that it may itself be making the deadly fuel, known as UDMH.
So we’re talking about UDMH. I’m not going to attempt a discussion here on the properties of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine because I couldn’t even pronounce those terms given several tries. They wind up mixing their compounds up with nitrogen tetroxide and liquid oxygen, producing some of the biggest bang for the buck you can get in terms of rocket fuel.
This isn’t something that just anyone can cook up in their home lab and at least until recently there were only a few places you could get it. It seems a safe bet that we’re not selling any of ours to North Korea, so suspicion immediately falls on Russia and the Chinese. If they’ve been supplying Kim with his rocket fuel (without which he probably couldn’t get a missile all the way to California) then that’s a problem. But even if they’ve stopped, it’s apparently believed that Kim has had enough time and enough of a supply to tinker with that they’re producing it now for themselves.
This report, combined with opinions offered to the New York Times from intelligence officials, reveals that both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations had knowledge of North Korea’s need for this fuel and their attempts to both obtain supplies from foreign powers and to master the technology required to produce it themselves. But no serious effort to disrupt those activities – either publicly through sanctions and diplomacy or by clandestine means – was ever put in place. And now, if the defense analysts are correct, it’s too late. Also, I checked with a chemist who knows about such things and, while difficult, if you have the knowledge and the raw materials, North Korea can probably do it, so it sounds more and more like they’ve got their own supply.
I suppose yelling at the Russians and the Chinese for giving Kim his fuel might make us feel better at this point, but that’s about all. The UDMH horse is apparently out of the barn and there’s no bringing it back. But if it’s any consolation, our U.N. Ambassador just said that North Korea “will be destroyed” if we have to defend ourselves. Here’s the video of that to keep you warm at night.