South Korea has announced its plan to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month. The purpose of the satellite is to better monitor rival North Korea, which is seeking to expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons targeting its adversaries.
The satellite, to be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on November 30, will be carried by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Under a contract with SpaceX, South Korea aims to launch four more spy satellites by 2025.
Currently, South Korea relies on U.S. spy satellites to monitor North Korea as it lacks its own military reconnaissance satellites. Having its own spy satellites will provide South Korea with an independent space-based surveillance system, enhancing its ability to monitor North Korea in nearly real-time. Combined with South Korea’s three-axis system (preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets), the country’s overall defense against North Korea would be significantly strengthened.
While U.S. spy satellites offer higher-resolution imagery, they are operated under U.S. strategic objectives, not South Korea’s. Additionally, the U.S. sometimes does not share satellite photos containing highly sensitive information with South Korea.
Using a SpaceX rocket to launch the spy satellite from the Vandenberg base is deemed more economical. Observers also believe that a SpaceX rocket would be more reliable to carry the heavier South Korean spy satellite compared to the one launched in 2022.
Meanwhile, North Korea has failed in its attempts to launch its own reconnaissance satellite due to technical issues. It had announced plans for a third attempt in October but did not follow through. South Korea’s spy agency has informed lawmakers that North Korea is likely receiving Russian technological assistance for its satellite launch program.
South Korea’s acquisition of spy satellites is part of its ambitious arms build-up plans as announced by leader Kim Jong Un in 2021. Kim stated the need for more sophisticated weapons technologies, including mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles, to counter perceived U.S. military threats.
After analyzing the debris from North Korea’s failed satellite launch in May, South Korea concluded that it was too crude for military reconnaissance. However, the satellite could still be capable of identifying larger targets like warships, making it potentially useful for North Korea’s military purposes.