In a significant move to bolster its national security and intelligence capabilities, South Korea announced its plans to launch its very first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month. The primary objective behind this initiative is to enhance its monitoring of its neighboring nation, North Korea, which has been steadily expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons. This strategic development comes on the heels of North Korea’s recent failure to launch its own reconnaissance satellite in October, which is believed to be attributed to technical complications.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesperson, Jeon Ha Gyu, unveiled the plan on a Monday press conference, revealing that the country’s inaugural military spy satellite will take off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on November 30. This historic launch will be facilitated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket under a contractual agreement with the American aerospace manufacturer. Furthermore, South Korea has laid out ambitious plans to launch an additional four spy satellites by the year 2025, in a bid to significantly bolster its intelligence-gathering capabilities.
Relying on U.S. Spy Satellites
Until now, South Korea has been dependent on U.S. spy satellites to monitor North Korea’s movements. The possession of its own spy satellites will grant South Korea the autonomy to establish an independent space-based surveillance system, allowing real-time monitoring of North Korea. This capability will synergize effectively with South Korea’s so-called three-axis system, comprising preemptive strike, missile defense, and retaliatory assets. It is projected that this multi-faceted approach to national defense will considerably enhance South Korea’s security posture against potential threats from North Korea.
Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, noted that while U.S. spy satellites offer higher-resolution imagery, they operate based on U.S. strategic objectives and often withhold highly sensitive information. This limitation highlights the imperative need for South Korea to establish its independent satellite network for a more comprehensive assessment of North Korea’s activities.
South Korea’s Technological Advancements
South Korea’s endeavor to launch its own spy satellite is not a novel concept. Last year, the country successfully placed a “performance observation satellite” into orbit using a homegrown rocket. This accomplishment earned South Korea the distinction of being the 10th nation worldwide to launch a satellite with its indigenous technology. This achievement showcases South Korea’s technological prowess in satellite deployment.
It is essential to acknowledge that South Korea’s 2022 launch demonstrated its capacity to launch satellites heavier than the forthcoming spy satellite. However, rigorous testing is still required to ensure the reliability of the rocket. Moreover, the utilization of a SpaceX rocket for the spy satellite’s launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base is seen as a more cost-effective and pragmatic option.
North Korea’s Aspirations
North Korea has also been actively pursuing its aspirations to acquire a spy satellite, with two earlier launch attempts this year ending in failure due to technical issues. The country initially announced a third launch attempt in October but did not execute it, and it has not provided any official reasons for this postponement.
South Korea’s spy agency reported that North Korea might be receiving technological assistance from Russia to advance its spy satellite program. This insight suggests that North Korea may be nearing the final stages of preparation for a successful launch. This development aligns with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ambitious plans for modernizing the country’s weapons capabilities, including mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons, and multi-warhead missiles, to counter perceived U.S. military threats.
South Korea, the United States, and other foreign governments are closely monitoring North Korea’s activities, expressing concerns that the country might be acquiring advanced weapons technology from Russia, possibly in exchange for military equipment supplied by North Korea for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Both North Korea and Russia have denied any such arms transfer deal, deeming it baseless.
Despite South Korea’s retrieval of debris from North Korea’s initial failed satellite launch in May, analysts contend that even a less advanced North Korean satellite could potentially identify significant targets like warships, making it militarily useful for North Korea.
This significant development in South Korea’s space and security capabilities marks a turning point in the region’s geopolitical landscape, as South Korea takes substantial strides toward bolstering its national defense and intelligence-gathering capabilities.