South Korea has announced plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month with the aim of better monitoring North Korea. The decision comes in response to North Korea’s efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal and develop weapons targeting its adversaries. After North Korea failed to launch its own reconnaissance satellite in October, South Korea revealed that its military spy satellite will be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on November 30, carried by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. As part of a contract with SpaceX, South Korea intends to launch four more spy satellites by 2025.
Currently, South Korea relies on U.S. spy satellites to monitor North Korea as it does not have any military reconnaissance satellites of its own. By possessing independent space-based surveillance capabilities, South Korea’s overall defense against North Korea would be significantly strengthened when combined with its existing three-axis system of preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets. The country’s future spy satellites would provide near real-time monitoring of North Korea.
According to Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, while U.S. spy satellites produce higher-resolution imagery, they are operated based on U.S. strategic objectives and sometimes do not share highly sensitive information with South Korea. Launching a spy satellite using a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg base is deemed more cost-effective and reliable compared to South Korea’s previous satellite launch using its own rocket.
North Korea has also expressed a desire to acquire its own spy satellite, but its previous launch attempts this year failed due to technical issues. South Korea’s spy agency has informed lawmakers that North Korea may be receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite launch program. It is believed that North Korea aims to acquire sophisticated weapons technologies from Russia to modernize its military capabilities. In 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced ambitious arms build-up plans, including the development of spy satellites, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles, in response to perceived U.S. military threats.
South Korea retrieved debris from North Korea’s first failed satellite launch in May and concluded that it lacked the necessary capabilities for military reconnaissance. However, it is believed that the North Korean satellite could still be used to identify large targets such as warships, providing some military utility.