South Korea has announced plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month, with the aim of improving its monitoring capabilities of North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal.
The announcement comes after North Korea did not follow through on its promise to launch its own reconnaissance satellite in October, likely due to technical difficulties.
According to Jeon Ha Gyu, a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry, 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.
Under a contract with SpaceX, South Korea plans to launch four more spy satellites by 2025, as stated by South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
Currently, South Korea relies on U.S. spy satellites for monitoring North Korea, as it does not possess its own military reconnaissance satellites. The development of its own spy satellites would provide South Korea with an independent space-based surveillance system, enabling near real-time monitoring of North Korea.
When combined with South Korea’s three-axis system consisting of preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets, the possession of spy satellites would significantly enhance the country’s overall defense against North Korea, according to Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.
Unlike U.S. spy satellites, which operate under U.S. strategic objectives, South Korean spy satellites would cater to the country’s specific needs. Additionally, there have been instances where the U.S. has withheld satellite photos containing highly sensitive information from South Korea.
South Korea demonstrated its satellite launch capabilities last year by successfully placing a “performance observation satellite” in orbit using its own rocket. However, further tests are needed to ensure the reliability of the rocket for launching the spy satellite. The use of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for the launch from Vandenberg Base is not only reliable but also more cost-effective.
In parallel, North Korea has expressed its eagerness to acquire its own spy satellite. However, its previous launch attempts this year ended in failure due to technical issues. Although North Korea had announced a third attempt in October, it did not materialize, and no reason has been provided by the country’s state media.
South Korea’s spy agency revealed last week that North Korea is likely receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite program. The National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers that North Korea is in the final phase of preparations for a successful launch.
The possession of spy satellites is part of North Korea’s ambitious plan to strengthen its military capabilities, as announced by its leader Kim Jong Un in 2021. North Korea has expressed the need for more advanced weapons technologies, such as mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles, in response to perceived U.S. military threats.
The international community, including South Korea and the U.S., suspects that North Korea is seeking sophisticated weapons technologies from Russia, potentially in exchange for ammunition, rockets, and other military equipment to support Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Both Russia and North Korea have denied the existence of such an arms transfer deal.
Despite the rudimentary nature of North Korea’s previous satellite launch, it still has the potential to identify significant targets like warships, making it militarily useful for the country.