On Monday, South Korea announced its intention to launch its inaugural domestically produced reconnaissance satellite by the end of this month. The primary objective is to enhance its surveillance capabilities, particularly in monitoring North Korea, which is actively increasing its inventory of nuclear weapons.
The announcement comes in the wake of North Korea’s recent failure to fulfill its promise to attempt a third launch of its reconnaissance satellite in October, a likely consequence of technical difficulties.
On Monday, Jeon Ha Gyu, a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry, informed reporters that the nation’s inaugural military reconnaissance satellite is scheduled for launch on November 30 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The satellite is set to be transported into space aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. As part of a contract with SpaceX, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration has outlined its intentions to launch an additional four spy satellites by the year 2025. At present, South Korea lacks its military reconnaissance satellites and depends on U.S. spy satellites to observe and monitor North Korea’s activities.
Possessing its spy satellites would provide South Korea with an autonomous space-based surveillance system, enabling near-real-time monitoring of North Korea. When integrated with South Korea’s “three-axis system,” which includes preemptive strike capabilities, missile defense, and retaliatory assets, the country’s overall defense against North Korea would experience a substantial enhancement, as noted by Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.
Lee emphasized that while U.S. spy satellites offer higher-resolution imagery, they are operated in alignment with U.S. strategic objectives rather than South Korea’s interests. Additionally, there have been instances where the U.S. did not share satellite photos containing highly sensitive information with South Korea.
North Korea is actively pursuing the acquisition of its reconnaissance satellite, but its two earlier launch attempts this year encountered technical failures. Although the country initially declared plans for a third attempt in October, it did not proceed with it, and North Korea’s state media have not explained.
South Korea’s intelligence agency recently informed lawmakers that North Korea is likely receiving technological support from Russia for its reconnaissance satellite program. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) indicated that North Korea is in the advanced stages of preparations for its third launch, which the NIS believes is poised for success.
The pursuit of reconnaissance satellites is a component of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ambitious arms expansion agenda, announced in 2021. Kim highlighted the need for additional mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weaponry, and multi-warhead missiles to counter mounting U.S. military threats.
South Korea, the United States, and other foreign governments suspect that North Korea is actively seeking advanced weapons technologies from Russia, aiming to modernize its weapons programs. In return, North Korea is believed to be supplying ammunition, rockets, and other military equipment to support Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Both Russia and North Korea, however, have denied the existence of such an arms transfer deal, dismissing it as unfounded.
Following North Korea’s initial unsuccessful satellite launch in May, South Korea recovered debris from the satellite and determined that it was relatively basic and not suitable for military reconnaissance purposes. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the North Korean satellite could still possess the capability to identify larger targets such as warships, making it potentially valuable for military applications from North Korea’s perspective.