Both South and North Korea have plans to launch their first spy satellites into orbit by the end of this month, marking a race for military capabilities in space. North Korea has informed Japan about its intention to launch a satellite between Wednesday and December 1, following two unsuccessful attempts earlier this year. On the other hand, South Korea is set 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 has additional plans to utilize SpaceX for the launch of four more spy satellites by 2025. South Korea has also conducted successful tests of its own liquid and solid fuel rockets, as it aims to launch both civilian and military satellites in the future. The deployment of reconnaissance satellites would grant North Korea the ability to remotely monitor troops from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Meanwhile, South Korea’s satellites would reduce its reliance on American intelligence systems.
According to Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both Koreas stand to benefit from independent space-based reconnaissance capabilities, as it offers practical advantages for each side. In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Kim Jong Un a tour of Russia’s modern space launch facility and pledged assistance in satellite development. Furthermore, a researcher at North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration mentioned that the militarization of space by the United States and its allies necessitates an intensified spy satellite program in Pyongyang.
The employment of South Korea’s own array of spy satellites by 2020 was announced by former deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong. The South Korean military believes that constant surveillance is crucial for monitoring the Korean peninsula, hence the need for “unblinking eyes” throughout the day. The satellites could be used for various purposes including early warning, military targeting, damage assessments during wartime, and communication. While South Korea’s capabilities are more advanced, further progress is still necessary to yield significant results.
Even if North Korea’s first satellite is of low quality in terms of resolution, Ankit Panda argues that it could still have military utility for strategic warning and situational awareness. Thus, it would be shortsighted to solely consider North Korea’s acquisition of reconnaissance capabilities as a threat. Instead, it could potentially confer stability by allowing North Korea to better understand the strategic situation during a crisis.