South Korea announced its plan to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month, aimed at better monitoring North Korea’s expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons. The decision comes after North Korea failed to launch its own reconnaissance satellite in October.
The South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson, Jeon Ha Gyu, revealed that the country’s first military spy satellite will be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on November 30. The satellite will be carried by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. South Korea has a contract with SpaceX to launch four more spy satellites by 2025, as confirmed by the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
Currently, South Korea relies on U.S. spy satellites to monitor North Korea, as it does not possess any military reconnaissance satellites of its own. The launch of its own spy satellites will allow South Korea to have an independent space-based surveillance system, providing real-time monitoring capabilities of North Korea’s activities.
Integrating the spy satellites with South Korea’s existing three-axis system (preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets) will significantly enhance the country’s overall defense against North Korea. Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, pointed out that while U.S. spy satellites have higher-resolution imagery, their operation is guided by U.S. strategic objectives. Furthermore, the U.S. sometimes withholds satellite photos containing sensitive information from South Korea.
It is worth noting that South Korea successfully launched a satellite using its own technology in 2022, but further tests are required for the reliability of their rockets. In terms of cost-effectiveness, using a SpaceX rocket for the spy satellite launch from Vandenberg base is considered more economical.
North Korea is also striving to acquire its own spy satellite technology. However, the country’s previous two launch attempts failed due to technical reasons. While North Korea announced its intention to make a third attempt in October, it did not follow through. South Korea’s spy agency reported that North Korea may be receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite program.
The possession of spy satellites is part of North Korea’s ambitious arms build-up plans, along with a desire for more sophisticated weapons technologies such as mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles. South Korea, the U.S., and other foreign governments suspect North Korea of seeking weapons technologies from Russia in exchange for military equipment supplied for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Russia and North Korea deny the reported arms transfer deal.
While South Korea concluded that North Korea’s previous satellite was not suitable for military reconnaissance, it still possesses the capability to identify significant targets like warships, making it potentially useful for North Korea’s military purposes.