North Korea on Wednesday said it had put its first spy satellite into orbit and vowed further launches to defend against what it called its “enemies’ dangerous military maneuvers.”
Analysts said if the spacecraft works, it could provide significantly improve North Korea’s military capabilities, including enabling it to more accurately target opponents’ forces.
The satellite, named “Malligyong-1,” was launched late Tuesday on a new carrier rocket, “Chollima-1,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“The launch of a reconnaissance satellite is the legal right of North Korea to strengthen its right to self-defense,” the KCNA report said.
Neither South Korea, the United States nor Japan, all of which are experiencing increasing military tensions with North Korea, could confirm the satellite had made it into orbit.
But South Korea called the launch a “clear violation” of a UN Security Council resolution that prohibits North Korea from using ballistic missile technology.
And Wednesday morning the South Korean government partially suspended an agreement it had with North Korea that limited the South’s reconnaissance and surveillance activities along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries.
The rocket carrying the satellite was launched in a southerly direction and is believed to have passed over Japan’s Okinawa prefecture.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the launch, referring to it as “a serious situation” that “affects the safety” of people in Japan while reiterating his commitment to continue working with the US and South Korea to respond to Pyongyang’s launches.
In a statement Wednesday, Seoul’s military said that it had been tracking preparations for the launch in close cooperation with the US.
The statement said Aegis destroyers from South Korea, the US, and Japan were deployed to track the launch and information about the specifics of it were being comprehensively analyzed.
Japanese Defense Minister Hiroyuki Miyazawa said his country was still trying to determine whether North Korea’s satellite had reached orbit.
Third satellite launch attempt
Pyongyang first attempted to put a satellite into orbit in late May, but the second stage of the rocket carrying the satellite malfunctioned and it crashed into the sea.
KCNA said “the reliability and stability of the new engine system” was “low” and the fuel used “unstable,” leading to the mission’s failure.
A second attempt failed in August when there was “an error in the emergency blasting system during the third-stage flight,” a KCNA report said at the time.
That rocket broke into multiple parts before falling into the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean, according to Japanese officials.
In a defiant speech to the UN Security Council after the second failed launch, North Korean Ambassador Kim Song insisted that pursuing the spy satellite program was within the country’s “legitimate right as a sovereign state.” He denied that North Korea had been seeking to acquire intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology through the satellite launch.
Tuesday night’s third attempt was widely expected and signaled by Pyongyang, which early Wednesday vowed to launch more.
North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration would submit a plan to “secure the capability to reconnoiter the south Korean region … by additionally launching several reconnaissance satellites in a short span of time,” KCNA said.
Pyongyang said having a satellite was a legitimate self-defense measure against what it claims are a series of provocations by the US, South Korea and Japan.
Earlier this week North Korea denounced the US for its potential sales of advanced missiles to Japan and military equipment to South Korea, calling it “a dangerous act” in a report from KCNA.
North Korea said it was “obvious” who the offensive military equipment would be aimed at and used against.
A military boost for Pyongyang
Analysts said even a single satellite in orbit helps North Korea’s military posture.
“If it works it will improve the North Korean military’s command, control, and communications or intelligence and surveillance capabilities. That would improve the North’s ability to command its forces” in any possible conflict, said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
The “satellite will give them a capability that they previously used to lack that can assist them in military targeting, it can assist them in damage assessment,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And lessons learned from Tuesday’s launch will be used in developing future satellites, Panda said.
“They’re going to take what they learn with this successful launch and apply it to additional launches. They will look to have a resilient, redundant constellation of Earth observation satellites and that will make a pretty big difference for (North Korea’s) overall strategic situational awareness capabilities,” he said.
But others cautioned that the real capabilities of what Pyongyang launched late Tuesday remain to be seen. Some suggested the North had more to lose from the South’s resumption of intelligence gathering along the border than it had to gain from the satellite launch.
“The surveillance drone operations Seoul may soon commence along the DMZ should produce more useful intelligence than North Korea’s rudimentary satellite program,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Shin Won-sik last Sunday said that the North was believed to have “almost resolved” its rocket engine issues “with Russia’s help.”
That came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had visited Russia in September, when he toured the Russian space rocket launch site alongside President Vladimir Putin.
In that meeting, Putin signaled a willingness to assist North Korea in developing its space and satellite program.
But Panda cautioned about making assumptions that aid and advice from Russia had made the difference for a successful third launch.
“It would seem unlikely to me given the timeline here that the North Koreans have already received and implemented technical assistance from Russia,” he said.
“Let’s also bear in mind that the North Koreans themselves are remarkably capable at this point.”