Rival Koreas are racing to launch their first spy satellites this month

A still image shows what appears to be North Korea’s new Chollima-1 missile launched in Cholsan County, North Korea, on May 31, 2023, in this image released by the Korean Central News Agency and taken from a video. KCNA via REUTERS/file photo

SEOUL — Both South and North Korea aim to launch their first spy satellites by the end of the month, kicking off the race for military capabilities in space.

North Korea has notified Japan that it plans to launch a satellite between Wednesday and December 1, after two failed attempts to launch spy satellites earlier this year.

Meanwhile, South Korea plans to send its first domestically developed military reconnaissance satellite into space on November 30 using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Seoul plans to use SpaceX to launch four more spy satellites by 2025 and has tested launching its own liquid and solid-fuel rockets to launch more civilian and military satellites in the future.

A functioning reconnaissance satellite could give North Korea its first ability to remotely monitor U.S., South Korean and Japanese troops, while South Korea’s satellites would reduce its dependence on U.S. intelligence systems.

“Both Koreas may benefit to varying degrees from acquiring independent space reconnaissance capabilities,” said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is undoubtedly an element of prestige for both sides, but the main factor is the practical benefits.”

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Kim Jong Un a tour of Russia’s advanced space launch facility and promised to help Pyongyang build satellites.

On Tuesday, a researcher with North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration said the militarization of space by the United States and its allies required Pyongyang to step up its satellite spy program.

Announcing plans for South Korea’s own spy satellite constellation in 2020, then-deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong said the South’s military needed “unblinking eyes” to monitor the Korean Peninsula 24 hours a day.

The two Koreas could use such satellites to enhance early warning capabilities, military purposes and damage assessment in the event of war, as well as for communication purposes, among others, said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general.

South Korean officials who recovered debris from North Korea’s recent satellite launches have cast doubt on their capabilities, with Seoul and Washington calling the launches veiled tests of ballistic missile technology banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Even if North Korea succeeds in another launch, it will be far from having any reconnaissance capabilities that would be of military value,” Chun said.

Panda argued that even if North Korea’s general satellite has poor resolution, it could still have some military use in strategic warning and situational awareness.

He added that it would be shortsighted to view North Korea’s acquisition of reconnaissance capabilities as a strictly threatening event.

“While Pyongyang could use these capabilities to queue nuclear strikes and conduct damage assessments, we can also see that such a capability would have a stabilizing effect, enabling North Korea to maintain better strategic situational awareness during a crisis,” Panda said.

Chun said South Korea’s capabilities are more advanced, but it still needs to make more progress to see results.

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“For South Korea, this will provide a significant increase in its surveillance capabilities, but many more satellites will still be needed,” he said.


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