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Two Koreas race to launch first homegrown military spy satellites

U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launched another spy satellite in the Pacific. (Screenshot)
November 07, 2023

In a high-stakes race, South and North Korea are vying for success in launching their first homegrown military spy satellites, backed respectively by the United States and Russia, as a pivotal initiative aimed at enhancing their military capabilities.

The South Korean military is set to launch its domestically-developed reconnaissance satellite on Nov. 30 from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, South Korea’s new Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said Friday during his meeting with reporters.

California-headquartered US aerospace giant SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will carry South Korea’s first spy satellite.

The upcoming launch is part of South Korea’s “425 Project,” which aims to “secure the military’s own reconnaissance satellites through research and development to monitor North Korea’s key strategic targets and respond” to potential threats, the Defense Ministry explained in a separate statement issued Friday.

In pursuit of this goal, the Defense Ministry has laid out plans to launch a total of five high-resolution military satellites by the year 2025 in light of the growing importance of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — or ISR — assets for early detection of advancing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

The ministry emphasized that military spy satellites will be the core of ISR assets, which serve as the cornerstone for South Korea’s three-axis defense system.

Spy satellites are poised to significantly reinforce the first axis of the three-pronged defense system, dubbed the “Kill Chain” preemptive strike mechanism, by bolstering ISR capabilities across deep areas and strategic targets in North Korea.

If South Korea successfully put a spy satellite into orbit, the Defense Ministry said it would provide an opportunity to “showcase the military’s superior scientific and technological capabilities when compared to North Korea’s satellite launch failures in May and August.”

North Korea has also sought to put “a large number of reconnaissance satellites” for military purposes by 2025 as ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in March 2022. At that time, the North Korean media said the goal was to “thoroughly monitor and identify anti-DPRK and hostile military actions by the aggression troops of the US imperialism and its vassal forces on the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding area.”

Shin pointed out that North Korea might conduct a third attempt at launching what it asserts to be a “military reconnaissance satellite” in late November. This follows a failed second launch in August, after which North Korea swiftly declared its intention to proceed with another satellite launch in October, attributing the previous failure to a third-stage rocket explosion.

“Judging from the signs we’ve identified, it doesn’t appear feasible within the next one of two weeks,” Shin told reporters, declining to elaborate on indications.

“However, our assessment suggests that a launch could potentially occur toward the end of November, though we need to remain cautious and monitor the situation as it unfolds.”

Shin explained the “delay in North Korea’s launch may be attributed to the necessity for additional time to improve the third-stage engine” of a carrier rocket. The defense chief added the South Korean military puts more weight on the likelihood that the third satellite launch delay is due to “specific technological guidance from Russia.”

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that he and the North Korean leader intentionally met at Russia’s primary spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, to assist North Korea in satellite development.

“The competition between South and North Korea in launching reconnaissance satellites is essentially a technology race between the United States and Russia,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“South Korea’s goal is to bolster its capabilities for the Kill Chain, with support from the United States. Conversely, North Korea, with Russian technological aid, is primarily oriented towards collecting intelligence on the military activities of South Korea and the United States,” he said.

But any launch conducted by North Korea that involves ballistic missile technology, including the use of space launch vehicles to place satellites into orbit, constitutes a breach of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

Amidst the postponement of the preannounced satellite launch, North Korean state media on Sunday reported that the country has designated November 18 as “Missile Industry Day” to commemorate the first test launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-17 last Nov. 18.

The anniversary was designated at a meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the state media said, without elaborating on the date of the meeting.

Yang suggested that North Korea might choose to conduct the third satellite launch on Missile Industry Day.

But the timing of South Korea’s upcoming satellite launch will be a crucial factor in determining North Korea’s launch date.

“The outcome will be of utmost importance if both South and North Korea proceed with their satellite launches in November. Should South Korea achieve success while North Korea faces another setback, it would cause political damage (to Pyongyang),” Yang said.

“North Korea will evaluate whether it’s more advantageous to launch our satellite before or after November 30, which is the date set for our satellite launch.”


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