North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country has completed the development of its first military spy satellite and ordered officials to go ahead with its launch at an undisclosed date, state media reported Wednesday.
Establishing a space-based surveillance system is one of Kim’s key objectives to advance his military capability to pressure the United States to abandon what he called its hostile policies, such as its military drills with ally South Korea and international economic sanctions on North Korea.
Previous missile and rocket tests have demonstrated North Korea can send satellites into space, but many experts question whether it has cameras sophisticated enough to use for spying from a satellite because only low-resolution images were released after past launches.
During his visit to the country’s aerospace agency Tuesday, Kim said that having an operational military reconnaissance satellite is crucial for North Korea to effectively use its war deterrence. Kim cited what he described as serious security threats posed by “the most hostile rhetoric and explicit action” by the United States and South Korea this year, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim said “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1” had been built as of April and ordered efforts to speed up final preparations for its launch at a planned date that he didn’t disclose. He said North Korea must launch several satellites to firmly establish an intelligence-gathering capability, KCNA said.
North Korea has said its ongoing torrid run of weapons tests, including its first test-launch of a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the U.S. mainland last week, are a response to joint military exercises between the United States and its regional allies South Korea and Japan. North Korea has carried out about 100 missile tests since the start of last year, about 30 of them this year.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries have been expanding their combined drills to beef up their deterrence against North Korea’s growing nuclear threats. This week, the allies launched a 12-day aerial exercise involving some 110 warplanes and staged a one-day naval missile defense exercise with Japan.
A spy satellite is among an array of major weapons systems that Kim had vowed to develop, along with a solid-propellant ICBM, a nuclear-power submarine, a hypersonic missile and a multi-warhead missile. North Korea has since conducted tests of such weapons, but it is not clear how close they are to operational.
When North Korea launched a test satellite to assess its photography and data transmission systems last December, it publicized black-and-white photos showing a space view of South Korean cities. Some civilian experts in South Korea said at the time the photos were too crude for a surveillance purpose and that they were likely capable of only recognizing big targets like warships at sea or military installations on the ground.
Kim’s sister and senior North Korean official, Kim Yo Jong, quickly dismissed such an assessment, saying the test satellite carried a commercial camera because there was no reason to use an expensive, high-resolution camera for a single-shot test.
Many outside analysts also assess North Korea hasn’t overcome the last remaining technological hurdles to acquire functioning nuclear missiles, such as ones to build miniaturized warheads atop missiles and protect warheads during atmospheric re-entry.
Kim Jong Un said one of the objectives for its spy satellite is acquiring an ability to “use pre-emptive military force when the situation demands.” That shows he intends to link the spy satellite to the North’s escalatory nuclear doctrine, which authorizes pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
Tuesday’s KCNA dispatch focused on U.S. military assets like aircraft carriers and long-range bombers that have been deployed in South Korea in recent months but made no mention of possible targets in the mainland U.S. That could imply that North Korea may intend to use its reconnaissance satellites to identify and then attack key targets in South Korea, including U.S. military bases, with its short-range missiles.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea is communicating that its military reconnaissance satellites would be intended to acquire precise location and movement information in real time so that its missiles and other nuclear-armed weapons could accurately strike targets. He said North Korea will likely inform international maritime and telecommunication authorities of its specific launch plans, likely sometime between May and September.
Putting a reconnaissance satellite into orbit would require a long-range rocket. But the U.N. bans such a launch by North Korea because it views it as a cover for testing its long-range ballistic missile technology.
North Korea placed its first and second Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, but foreign experts say neither one transmitted any imagery back to North Korea. U.N. sanctions were issued over those launches.