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N. Korea’s Satellite Development

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-12-27

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

With this successful launch, the South Korean military has secured independent space-based surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

On December 2, the South Korean military successfully launched its first indigenous military reconnaissance satellite. With this feat, the military has taken the first step to acquiring independent surveillance capabilities against North Korea. Earlier, on November 21, North Korea also launched a military reconnaissance satellite. 

The Joint Chiefs of Staff detected North Korea’s launch at around 10:43 p.m. on November 21. Initially, North Korea said it would launch a satellite between 12:00 a.m. on November 22 and 12:00 a.m. on December 1. But the launch actually occurred about an hour ahead of schedule. 

Both South and North Korea have launched their own military spy satellites lately, with a space race heating up between the two sides. How far has North Korea’s satellite development advanced? Today, we’ll analyze North Korea’s satellites with Jung Dae-jin, professor at Halla University in Wonju, Gangwon Province. 

On the night of November 21, North Korea launched the military reconnaissance satellite, Malligyong-1. Three hours later, the North described the launch as successful. 

It is true that North Korea successfully launched the Malligyong-1 and sent it into orbit. On November 22, the United States Space Force assigned a satellite number and an international code to the Malligyong-1. The number and the code are given to satellites that settled in orbit. Professor Jung explains the performance of the North Korean spy satellite. 

According to 38 North, which is a U.S.–based website monitoring North Korea, the Malligyong-1 has a limited level of capacity to simply detect military facilities and their general activities, rather than provide precise scientific and technical information that enables the detailed identification of aircrafts or missiles. For military reconnaissance satellites to have any value, they must have the ability to identify objects no larger than one meter across. But the North Korean satellite is assumed to be able to only detect the movement of large chunks, as its resolution is three meters. 

The North Korean spy satellite has three meters of spatial resolution, which is vastly different from South Korea’s resolution that is 30 centimeters. Also, entering orbit does not mean that the Malligyong-1 is operating normally. On top of entry into orbit, the success of a reconnaissance satellite is determined by whether it can receive signals from the ground station and transmit signals back to the station, and whether it can send photos and image data to Earth. Therefore, the outside world cannot determine the success of the launch of the Malligyong-1, as long as North Korea does not disclose data collected by the satellite. 

North Korea has celebrated the successful launch of its reconnaissance satellite every day. On November 23, a banquet was held to celebrate the occasion, with leader Kim Jong-un in attendance. 

North Korea has produced propaganda paintings to commemorate the success of the Malligyong-1. It also claims that the satellite took photos of major facilities in the U.S. mainland. 

North Korea says that leader Kim Jong-un visited the National Aerospace Technology Administration for days to observe photos showing the Pentagon, U.S. aircraft carriers and Naval Station Norfolk. However, North Korea has not released any of those photos. In fact, no country discloses military satellite imagery, which is sensitive military intelligence. So, we cannot fully determine the level of the North Korean spy satellite yet. 

Kim Jong-un has repeatedly said that his country will launch four or five more satellites down the road. At least six or more satellites must operate together to serve military purposes properly, that is, to monitor any place at any time. Obviously, North Korea has taken a first step in the process.

A deeper analysis is necessary to determine whether the North Korean satellite has surveillance capabilities against the U.S. at any meaningful level. If we review the history of North Korea’s space launch vehicles, however, it seems clear that the country has made some technical progress. 

In 1998, North Korea launched the Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite atop the Taepodong-1 rocket from Musudan-ri in North Hamgyong Province. The rocket flew 1,500 kilometers. But the solid propellant exploded in the third stage carrying the satellite, preventing the satellite from entering orbit. After the first failed attempt, North Korea launched the Taepodong-2 from the same launch site on July 4, 2006. But it also crashed on a coast. North Korea never gave up, though. On April 5, 2009, the country launched the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite on the Unha-2 launch vehicle. That day, the North held a mass rally, claiming that the country successfully put the satellite into orbit. In April 2012, the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was launched but failed to enter orbit. On December 12 that year, North Korea finally succeeded in the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2, an earth observation satellite. 

North Korea has made satellite launch attempts since 1998, claiming that it has launched satellites on eight occasions thus far. In December 2012, the North announced that the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 satellite went into orbit successfully. 

The Kwangmyongsong-3 deviated from orbit and disappeared. Nevertheless, leader Kim Jong-un expressed his determination to explore outer space. 

At the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party in 2021, North Korea pledged to develop military spy satellites. Why is the country so into the development of such satellites? 

If a country possesses military reconnaissance satellites, it means the country can obtain imagery of the desired location on demand during wartime. There is no point in waiting to see images captured by commercial satellites, long after the enemy hid itself and its troops moved. Military spy satellites are operated in order to obtain images of the desired area at the desired time. Only after possessing spy satellites, North Korea could precisely strike opponents, namely, South Korea and the U.S., whether it fires an intercontinental ballistic missile, intermediate-range missile or tactical nuclear missile. For North Korea, it is very important to secure reconnaissance satellite capabilities so it can show to the outside world that it has “eyes” as well as fists and muscles. 

Spy satellites are highly effective since they are used to monitor military targets and produce operations maps. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs. For the country, having military reconnaissance satellites is like securing a kind of “eyes.” 

Two years ago, North Korea presented the launch of military spy satellites as one of the major tasks. In April this year, it declared the completion of its first military reconnaissance satellite. But the spy satellites launched by North Korea in May and August ended in failure. After the two failed attempts, the country successfully placed a satellite into orbit in November. There is speculation that Russian support likely enabled North Korea to achieve the feat in about three months. 

The achievement is so great that it can be described as the Miracle of the Taedong River. Since the North Korea-Russia summit in September, it has been publicly known that the North receives assistance from Russia in the area of space science and technology. But I don’t think North Korea brought in Russian equipment or hardware. Rather, I imagine Russian scientists found out and corrected technical errors in North Korea’s two-stage and three-stage launch vehicles based on their experience and helped the North reduce the time it spends over the satellite launch. 

Following the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, the international community believes that North Korea has received help from Russia in the process of launching its reconnaissance satellite. 

On December 18, about a month after North Korea successfully put its spy satellite into orbit, the North test-fired an ICBM, escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula yet again. 

Although there are still doubts about the performance of North Korea’s spy satellite, the country might bolster its strike capability if its reconnaissance satellite and ICBM are put together. Are there any concerns that North Korea may seek to upgrade its ICBM technology by using its satellites as a disguise to test its missile capabilities, just as it did before? 

Both satellite and ICBM launches require similar technology. A satellite is attached to the end of a launch vehicle and carried into space. Similarly, a nuclear warhead could be placed atop a ballistic missile. 

But it is not easy to transfer technology related to ICBMs or nuclear weapons. North Korea may find it easy to accept space development technology from Russia. But is it really possible to enlist cooperation from Russia to make nuclear warheads smaller and more accurate? I guess there are many stumbling blocks in the way. A nuclear-armed North Korea might fire its nuclear weapons at the U.S. and Russia as well. Having this possibility in mind, will Russia fully cooperate with North Korea? Taking all these into consideration, I think North Korea has a long way to go. 

Analysts say that it is not easy, in reality, to transfer nuclear weapons-related technology. Satellite launches, for their part, need to overcome technical challenges that are different from those of missiles. Putting a satellite into orbit and maintaining it stably requires sophisticated technology. It is unknown whether North Korea has fully developed and possessed this technology. Still, North Korea is upgrading missile launch vehicles and will likely continue attempting to explore space. 

North Korea has definitely taken a first step to developing a military spy satellite, although its military value has not been fully confirmed yet. And the country will not give up on the development. Amid the prolonged war between Russia and Ukraine, Russia needs North Korea’s assistance in weapons and manpower. So, Moscow has no choice but to continue to cooperate with Pyongyang in space science and technology. Then, North Korea will likely accelerate the development of satellite technology. If the North continues to receive Russia’s experience and knowledge in manufacturing improved reconnaissance satellites, building large launch vehicles and developing hardware, it can considerably shorten the time required for the procedures. We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea’s satellite technology will grow on its own. 

North Korea has already said it plans to launch several more spy satellites. Concerns are growing in the international community over North Korea’s satellite development, which is progressing at a faster pace than expected. 

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