South Korea announced its plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month. The move comes as a response to North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal. The country’s Defense Ministry spokesperson, Jeon Ha Gyu, revealed that the satellite will be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on November 30, 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 US spy satellites for monitoring North Korea and has no military reconnaissance satellites of its own. The possession of independent spy satellites would provide South Korea with an almost real-time surveillance system for monitoring North Korea. Additionally, when coupled with South Korea’s three-axis system – preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets – these satellites would significantly enhance the country’s defense against North Korea.
Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, noted that while US spy satellites offer higher-resolution imagery, their operations are aligned with US strategic objectives rather than South Korea’s. Furthermore, the US sometimes refrains from sharing satellite photos containing highly sensitive information with South Korea.
South Korea’s successful launch of a performance observation satellite last year established its capability to launch satellites independently with its own technology. However, more tests are needed to ensure the reliability of its rockets. Utilizing a SpaceX rocket for the spy satellite launch from the Vandenberg base is considered more economical.
While South Korea is making progress, North Korea has faced setbacks in its attempts to launch its own spy satellite. The country’s previous two launch attempts this year failed due to technical issues. Although North Korea announced a third attempt in October, it did not materialize, and the reason remains unclear. South Korea’s spy agency recently testified that North Korea might be receiving Russian technological assistance for its satellite launch program.
North Korea’s desire to possess spy satellites is part of its broader arms build-up plans announced by leader Kim Jong Un. It aims to acquire advanced weapons technologies to counter US military threats. South Korea, the US, and other governments suspect North Korea of seeking assistance from Russia in exchange for military equipment supplies related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, both Russia and North Korea deny the reported arms transfer deal.