Wallowing in Ukraine jail after attempted missile tech theft

Convicted North Korean spy Ri Tae Gil (left) in the No. 8 Prison in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, in 2011. Deputy warden Anatoly Gabitov describes Ri as a "super inmate" who never causes trouble.
Convicted North Korean spy Ri Tae Gil (left) in the No. 8 Prison in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, in 2011. Deputy warden Anatoly Gabitov describes Ri as a "super inmate" who never causes trouble.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ZHYTOMYR (Ukraine) • The North Korean spy, posing as a member of his country's trade delegation in Belarus, thought he was photographing a secret scientific report on missile technology as he snapped away with a small camera in a dingy garage in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the home of Ukraine's Soviet-era rocket industry.

But the report he took photos of was a fake, part of a sting operation by Ukraine's security service to prevent the leak of missile secrets.

Now the spy, 56-year-old Ri Tae Gil, is in prison convicted of espionage. He sleeps on the bottom bunk in a cell shared with eight Ukrainian inmates, four of them convicted murderers.

His July 2011 arrest in eastern Ukraine with a fellow North Korean spy, which was first reported earlier this month by CNN, shows the extent to which Pyongyang has scoured the world for foreign technology to reinvigorate what had been a faltering programme to develop long-range missiles.

Ri and his partner, Ryu Song Chol, 46, were arrested just a few days before North Korea's then leader Kim Jong Il announced during a visit to Russia that Pyongyang was considering a moratorium on missile production and nuclear weapons testing. The moratorium never came about.

Instead, following Mr Kim's death in December 2011 and the ascent to power of his son, Mr Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang ramped up its nuclear and missile programmes.

Even though he speaks good Russian, Ri does not talk much, his cellmates at the No. 8 Prison in Zhytomyr said. But he does watch a lot of television, particularly reports on the accelerating progress of a North Korean missile programme that he had tried in vain to serve.

His July 2011 arrest in eastern Ukraine... shows the extent to which Pyongyang has scoured the world for foreign technology to reinvigorate what had been a faltering programme to develop long-range missiles.

Instead of prized secrets, he got an eight-year jail term for espionage.

After a string of failed tests with an intermediate-range missile, Musudan, that had been the target of United States sabotage, North Korea last year suddenly and mysteriously found success.

It began with the rollout of a new missile in September last year that not only worked, but which could travel ever further distances in a series of tests since then.

In July, Pyongyang launched a missile capable of reaching the US.

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 Ri and Ryu were arrested.

Ukraine has adamantly denied allowing leaks of missile technology, pointing to the arrest and conviction of the two spies as proof the country is able to combat North Koreans hunting for missile secrets.

Asked in an interview whether he felt pride at North Korea's recent string of successful launches, Ri, who has a family back in Pyongyang, blanched and said he did not want to talk about rockets.

Mr Anatoly Gabitov, the deputy warden, described Ri as a "super inmate" who never causes trouble. "I wish all our prisoners were like him," he said.

The North Korean spy, however, may not be what he seems.

On a bookshelf next to his bed is a Russian-language translation of The Count Of Monte Cristo, the French novel whose protagonist considers himself wrongly imprisoned and, after a spectacular escape, sets about taking revenge on all those responsible for his incarceration.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'Wallowing in Ukraine jail after attempted missile tech theft'. Print Edition | Subscribe