Both South and North Korea are planning to launch their first spy satellites into orbit by the end of the month, fueling a race for military capabilities in space. North Korea has informed Japan that it intends to launch a satellite between Wednesday and December 1, following two previous failed attempts earlier this year. South Korea, on the other hand, plans to launch its first domestically developed military reconnaissance satellite on November 30, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Seoul has additional plans to use SpaceX to launch four more spy satellites by 2025 and has conducted test launches of its own rocket technology to support the launch of more civilian and military satellites in the future. A functioning reconnaissance satellite for North Korea would grant them the ability to remotely monitor U.S., South Korean, and Japanese troops, while South Korea’s satellites would decrease its reliance on American intelligence systems.
Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented, “Both Koreas stand to benefit to different degrees from the acquisition of independent space-based reconnaissance capabilities. There is no doubt an element of prestige here, too, for both sides, but the practical benefits are a primary driver.”
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin toured Russia’s modern space launch facility with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and promised to aid Pyongyang in satellite development. Furthermore, a researcher at North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration recently stated that the militarization of space by the United States and its allies necessitates an escalation of their spy satellite program.
Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general, explained that the two Koreas could utilize such satellites for early warning systems, military targeting and damage assessments in the event of war, as well as for communications and other purposes. However, officials in South Korea who have examined debris from North Korea’s past satellite launches have cast doubts on their capabilities, with both Seoul and Washington labeling the launches as veiled tests of banned ballistic missile technology.
Ankit Panda also argued that even if North Korea’s first satellite has low overall resolution, it could still be of some military value for strategic warning and situational awareness. He added that it would be narrow-minded to view North Korea’s acquisition of reconnaissance capabilities solely as a threatening development, as it could potentially confer a stabilizing effect by enhancing their strategic situational awareness in a crisis. While South Korea’s capabilities are more advanced, further progress is still needed to see significant results.