North Korea has failed in its two previous attempts to launch a military spy satellite into orbit earlier this year and has not followed through with its commitment to make a third attempt in October. South Korean officials have stated that this delay is likely due to North Korea receiving technological assistance from Russia and that the North may proceed with a launch in the coming days.
South Korean military officer Kang Hopil has urged North Korea to immediately cancel its third launch attempt. He stated in a televised statement, “Our military will take necessary measures to protect the lives and security of the population if North Korea proceeds with the launch of a military spy satellite despite our warning.”
South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik confirmed in an interview with public television channel KBS on Sunday that the launch is scheduled for later this month and that South Korean and U.S. authorities are monitoring North Korea’s movements.
The United Nations (UN) Security Council prohibits any satellite launches by North Korea as it considers them disguised tests of missile technology. Kang indicated that while North Korea may need a spy satellite to enhance its surveillance of South Korea, the launch is also aimed at strengthening its long-range missile program.
South Korea has accused North Korea of receiving Russian technology to bolster its nuclear capabilities and other military capacities in exchange for the supply of conventional weapons to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the alleged arms transfer agreement, stating it is unfounded. However, the two countries, locked in separate and protracted security tensions with the United States, have openly pushed for expanding bilateral cooperation.
In September, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin at the country’s largest national launch center, the cosmodrome. When asked by Russian state media if his country would help North Korea build satellites, Putin responded, “That’s why we came here. The leader (of North Korea) exhibits a keen interest in rocket technology.”
Officer Kang did not specify what retaliatory measures South Korea may take if North Korea conducts a third launch. However, he strongly hinted that these measures could include a suspension of the 2018 inter-Korean military agreements, which would require both Koreas to halt their air surveillance activities and live-fire exercises along their tense border.
Kang stated that North Korea has already violated the 2018 agreement several times, citing the North’s destruction of an unmanned inter-Korean liaison office, the launching of drones into South Korean territory, and the organization of firing exercises along the maritime border.
“Despite North’s repeated violations of the agreement, our military has patiently adhered to the clauses of the military agreement, but this has caused significant problems in our military’s readiness,” Kang said.
He mentioned that South Korea has refrained from conducting firing exercises in a buffer zone created near the disputed western maritime border between the two countries. Kang asserted that South Korea’s use of aerial reconnaissance assets designed to monitor artillery cannons and other equipment deployed at the front of North Korea has also been significantly restricted due to the 2018 agreement.
The military agreement, reached during a short-lived thaw between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, established buffer zones along land and sea borders, as well as no-fly zones above the border to avoid accidental clashes.
Relations between the rival nations then soured after the failure of extended nuclear diplomacy between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. Since then, North Korea has focused on expanding its nuclear arsenal, prompting current conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to increase military exercises with the United States.