Russia denies it helped North Korea to develop nuclear missiles that could hit US

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The Independent Online

Russian military experts with close links to the government poured scorn yesterday on claims that Moscow has helped North Korea develop two new ballistic missile systems capable of hitting mainland America with nuclear warheads.

Russian military experts with close links to the government poured scorn yesterday on claims that Moscow has helped North Korea develop two new ballistic missile systems capable of hitting mainland America with nuclear warheads.

The authoritative journal Jane's Defence Weekly has alleged that Siberian missile specialists helped Pyongyang design and possibly build ballistic missile systems closely based on a decommissioned Soviet submarine-launched missile dubbed R-27.

"[This] would fundamentally alter the missile threat posed by [North Korea] ... and could finally provide its leadership with something that it has long sought to obtain - the ability to directly threaten the continental US," the journal claimed.

The journal pointed the finger at staff from the VP Makeyev Design Bureau in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, whom it claimed had made an unspecified number of trips, along with other defence specialists, to North Korea since 1992, under the cover of helping to develop a space-launch vehicle.

The magazine also suggested that North Korea had obtained further vital missile intelligence from its 1993 purchase of 12 decommissioned Russian Foxtrot and Golf II-class submarines.

But Eduard Baltin, the former commander of Russia's Black Sea fleet, yesterday described the claims as "absurd". Insisting there was no way such sensitive missile technology would have been transferred from Russia to North Korea, he said the R-27 missiles had been painstakingly dismantled when withdrawn from service.

"Strategic second-generation submarines were armed with the R-27 missiles, [but] at the beginning of the 1990s they were removed from service, from both the Northern and Pacific fleets," he said. "They were completely cleaned up at the decommissioning factory and their warheads and military guidance systems removed. All that was left was a solid metal shell which was no good for anything apart from scrap." Russian experts said they doubted that the decommissioned submarines, which had also been carefully stripped of sensitive technology, would have helped the North Koreans either.

Vladimir Dvorkin, a former senior weapons specialist at the Defence Ministry, said he thought Pyongyang only possessed short-range Scud-like missiles and could only develop long-range missiles in future using its own, not Russian, technology. "North Korea doesn't have any other means," he said.

Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang have warmed in recent years with a visit to Russia by Kim Jong Il in 2002; Russia is one of six countries working to resolve a standoff over North Korea's nuclear programme.

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