April 20, 2023
SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered the launch of the country’s first military spy satellite to go ahead as planned, underscoring that his country can never give up its top priority goal of enhancing aerial observation and reconnaissance capabilities against the “escalating military threats” from South Korea and the United States.
Kim unveiled the launch plan in his visit to the state-run National Aerospace Development Administration or NADA on Tuesday, claiming that it has “completed manufacturing the military reconnaissance satellite No. 1 as of April,” North Korea’s state media reported Wednesday in a Korean-langauge dispatch.
Kim “proposed the military task of launching the military reconnaissance satellite No.1 at a planned date,” ordering North Korean officials to establish an interim preparation committee to “expeditiously complete final preparation.”
The North Korean leader underlined that the country should “firmly develop reconnaissance and intelligence collection capabilities by successively launching several reconnaissance satellites into different orbits in the future.”
Kim reiterated that launching a spy satellite is the “right of national sovereignty and self-defense,” especially when the US has frequently deployed its strategic assets including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to the Korean Peninsula as part of its efforts to strengthen US extended deterrence.
The goal of launching spy satellites is to monitor the military activities of “hostile forces” in real-time, Kim said.
“Acquiring reconnaissance satellites is a primary task, indispensable in strengthening the armed forces … in light of the recent security environment on the Korean Peninsula and in terms of tackling long-term threats,” Kim was quoted as saying.
Kim underscored the “strategic value and significance of acquiring military reconnaissance satellites in bolstering self-defense capabilities,” which enables the country to defend the country, its territory and people, from the “escalating military threats and challenges posed by the US and South Korea” and to “preemptively use military power” against them if needed.
“The reported statements have confirmed the launch of military reconnaissance satellites aimed to collect information such as the location of targets in real time, which is necessary to precisely strike targets with missiles and other nuclear weapons deliveries,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said North Korea aims to “overcome the asymmetry between North Korea’s poor reconnaissance capabilities and the overwhelming reconnaissance capabilities of the US and South Korea.”
“North Korea also seeks to enhance aerial observation capabilities and improve its accuracy and sophistication in operating its tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.”
Dr. Chang Young-keun, Missile Center doctor at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, assessed that photos released by North Korean state media suggested that North Korea has sought to develop a multistage, medium-lift launch vehicle capable of “carrying a satellite of considerable size or multiple small satellites.”
“North Korea is likely to have developed a launch vehicle propelled by Mt. Paektu liquid-propellant engine used for Hwasong-14, 15 and 17 intercontinental ballistic missiles instead of a solid-fuel launch vehicle,” Chang said. “The satellite launch vehicle will be capable of launching a satellite weighing more than one ton into low orbit.”
North Korean state media did not share the current progress in the development of a new launch vehicle that can carry spy satellites from Earth to space. But Chang said it is presumed that Pyongyang is at the stage of conducting operational testing and evaluating the satellite launch vehicle system.
“The normal timeframe would be to launch a satellite in the second half of this year. But considering North Korea’s methods and trends of development, the country may conduct a satellite launch as early as June,” Chang said. “At the end of the day, North Korea will decide on when to launch a satellite in light of technical factors and on political grounds.”
But other experts forecast that North Korea might conduct the satellite launch in the near future.
Hong said North Korea might launch a spy satellite before South Korea conducts its third launch of its homegrown space rocket Nuri in late May, in a bid to preemptively show off its achievement in space exploration. Hong also braces for the possibility of North Korea launching a spy satellite this month to send internal and external messages on the occasion of key events.
North Korea is set to celebrate the Foundation Day of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, which falls on April 25. South Korea and the US gear up for the summit on April 26, in which the alliance’s deterrence and readiness posture against escalating North Korean threats will be discussed as the main agenda.
“Kim Jong-un’s remarks during the on-site guidance suggest that the launch of a reconnaissance satellite is imminent,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“The launch is likely to take place just before the South Korea-US summit on April 26 to demonstrate that North Korea has the upper hand over South Korea and the US in issues on the Korean Peninsula, although weather conditions such as wind direction and speed are variables,” Yang added.