South Korea has announced plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month. The launch aims to enhance South Korea’s monitoring of rival North Korea, which has been expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal. The satellite will be carried into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket under a contract with South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration. South Korea intends to launch four more spy satellites by 2025.
Currently, South Korea relies on US spy satellites to gather intelligence on North Korea. Having its own spy satellites will provide South Korea with an independent space-based surveillance system, allowing for real-time monitoring of North Korea’s activities. Combining the spy satellites with South Korea’s existing three-axis system, which includes preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets, will significantly strengthen the country’s defense against North Korea.
While US spy satellites offer higher-resolution imagery, they operate under US strategic objectives, not necessarily aligned with South Korea’s interests. Additionally, the US sometimes withholds sensitive satellite photos from South Korea. South Korea’s successful launch of a homegrown satellite last year proved its capability, but further tests are needed to ensure the reliability of the rocket.
North Korea is also attempting to develop its own spy satellite, but its previous attempts have failed due to technical issues. The country has not provided a reason for the delay in its third attempt. South Korea’s spy agency has informed lawmakers that North Korea may be receiving technological assistance from Russia for its satellite launch program. North Korea’s pursuit of spy satellites is part of its ambitious arms build-up plans, which also include mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles.
South Korea, the US, and other foreign governments suspect North Korea of seeking weapons technologies from Russia in exchange for military equipment supplied during Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, both Russia and North Korea have denied this alleged arms transfer deal. Despite South Korea determining that North Korea’s satellite is relatively crude, it still has the potential to identify significant targets like warships and serve military purposes.