South Korea Plans to Launch Its First Military Spy Satellite on Nov. 30

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Flags of North Korea and South Korea seen from Paju, South Korea
Flags of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, flutter in the wind as pictured from the border area between two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, on Aug. 9, 2021. (Im Byung-shik/Yonhap via AP, File)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said Monday it plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite at the end of this month to better monitor rival North Korea, which is expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The plan was unveiled days after North Korea failed to follow through on a vow to make a third attempt to launch its own reconnaissance satellite in October, likely because of technical issues.

Jeon Ha Gyu, a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry, told reporters Monday that the country’s first military spy satellite will be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on Nov. 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, according to South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

South Korea currently has no military reconnaissance satellites of its own and relies on U.S. spy satellites to monitor moves by North Korea.

The possession of its own spy satellites would give South Korea an independent space-based surveillance system to monitor North Korea in almost real time. When operated together with South Korea’s so-called three-axis system — preemptive strike, missile defense and retaliatory assets — the country’s overall defense against North Korea would be sharply strengthened, according to Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.

Lee said U.S. spy satellites produce much higher-resolution imagery but are operated under U.S. strategic objectives, not South Korea’s. He said the U.S also sometimes doesn’t share satellite photos with highly sensitive information with South Korea.

Last year, South Korea used a homegrown rocket to place what it called a “performance observation satellite” in orbit, becoming the world’s 10th nation to successfully launch a satellite with its own technology.

Observers say South Korea's 2022 launch proved it can launch a satellite that is heavier than the spy satellite, but that it needs more tests to ensure the rocket's reliability. Lee also said it's much more economical to use a SpaceX rocket to launch the spy satellite from the Vandenberg base.

North Korea is also eager to acquire its own spy satellite. But its two launch attempts earlier this year ended in failure for technical reasons. The country said it would make a third attempt sometime in October but did not do so and its state media have not provided a reason.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that North Korea is likely receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite launch program. The National Intelligence Service said North Korea was in the final phase of preparations for its third launch, which the NIS said would likely be successful.

The possession of spy satellites is part of ambitious arms build-up plans announced by North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in 2021. Kim said North Korea also needs more mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons and multi-warhead missiles to cope with intensifying U.S. military threats.

South Korea, the U.S. and other foreign governments believe North Korea is seeking sophisticated weapons technologies from Russia to modernize its weapons programs in return for supplying ammunition, rockets and other military equipment for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Russia and North Korea have rejected the reported arms transfer deal as groundless.

After North Korea's first failed launch in May, South Korea retrieved debris from the satellite and concluded it was too crude to perform military reconnaissance. Lee said the North Korean satellite would still be capable of identifying big targets like warships so it could be militarily useful for North Korea.

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