While speaking good Russian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine, Mr. Ri does not talk much, his cellmates said, but he does watch a lot of television, particularly reports on the accelerating progress of a North Korean missile program that he had tried in vain to serve. Instead of prized secrets, he received an eight-year prison term for espionage.
Mr. Ri’s prison cell. According to his cellmates, Mr. Ri does not talk much, but does watch a lot of TV, particularly reports on the progress of the North Korean missile program. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
His fourth floor cell at the No. 8 Prison in Zhytomyr, a hulking brick building built during the reign of Russia’s last czar, has cable TV. A brick wall in the courtyard below offers a grim reminder of less accommodating times: it is pockmarked with bullet holes left by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, later renamed the KGB, which used the spot to execute prisoners.
Asked in an interview whether he felt pride at North Korea’s recent string of successful launches, Mr. Ri, who has a family back in Pyongyang, blanched and said he did not want to talk about rockets.
Apparently eager to counter a widespread belief that North Korea had made such fast progress by stealing foreign technology, he said that his country “has had good rockets for more than 20 years” and also very good engineers.
Denys Chernyshov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of justice, described Mr. Ri and Mr. Ryu as “very well trained. They are tough guys, real spies,” he said.
He noted that, despite six years of detention, they had never written or received letters from family or friends. “They live in a total vacuum,” he said.
After a string of failed tests with an intermediate range missile, Musudan, that had been the target of American sabotage, North Korea last year suddenly and mysteriously found success. It began with the rollout of a new missile in September that not only worked but also demonstrated a capability to travel ever further distances in a series of tests since then. In July, Pyongyang launched a missile capable of reaching the United States.
Seeking to explain North Korea’s mysterious success, some experts have pointed a finger at Ukraine, particularly the Yuzhmash rocket factory and its Yuzhnoye design bureau in Dnipro, the town where Mr. Ri and Mr. Ryu were arrested.
Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, at the Yuzhmash missile factory in Dnipro in 2014. Some experts say North Korea owes its advances in missile design to classified materials obtained from Yuzmash and its Yuzhnoye design bureau in Dnipro. Credit Pool photo by Mykhailo Markiv
Ukraine has adamantly denied allowing leaks of missile technology, pointing to the arrest and conviction of the two spies as proof that the country is capable of combating North Koreans hunting for missile secrets. Ukrainian rockets mostly date to Soviet times but are still far more advanced than anything Pyongyang had until recently been able to produce.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of Ukraine’s security and defense council, said it was “completely impossible” that North Korea obtained either missile engines or their design documents from Ukraine.
The RD-250, a Soviet-era rocket engine that some experts say resembles engines used in recent North Korean launches, used to be produced in Dnipro, Mr. Turchynov said, but production stopped in 1991. The entire production line, he said, was dismantled in 1994. Moreover, he added, Ukraine never made whole engines but only supplied parts to the RD-250’s main manufacturer, Energomash, in Russia.