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Kim Jong-un says North Korea’s first spy satellite is ready for launch

The North Korean leader said that having an operational military reconnaissance satellite is crucial for the country to effectively use its nuclear-capable missiles

Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter visit the National Aerospace Development Administration in Pyongyang on April 18, 2023.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his country has built its first-ever military spy satellite and that he planned to launch it on an undisclosed date, state media reported Wednesday. Previous missile and rocket tests have demonstrated that 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 test 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 nuclear-capable missiles. 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. He likely hopes to pressure his rivals on issues including joint military drills and international economic sanctions on North Korea.

Kim said “the military reconnaissance satellite No. 1″ had already been built and ordered officials to speed up preparations for its launch. He said North Korea must launch several satellites to establish an intelligence-gathering capability, KCNA said.

North Korea has said its ongoing 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, including about 30 this year.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries have been expanding combined drills in response to 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.

Spy satellites are among an array of major weapons systems that Kim publicly vowed to develop during a major ruling Workers’ Party conference in January 2021. Kim also pledged to build solid-propellant ICBMs, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic missiles and multi-warhead missiles. North Korea has since conducted tests of such weapons, but observers say those high-tech weapons are still in development stages.

After North Korea launched a test satellite 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 said the test satellite carried a commercial camera because there was no reason to use an expensive, high-resolution camera for a single-shot test.

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.”

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 intends to use its reconnaissance satellites to identify key targets in South Korea, including U.S. military bases, in order to attack them with short-range missiles.

Putting a reconnaissance satellite into orbit would require a long-range rocket. The U.N. bans such launches by North Korea because it views them as cover for testing its long-range ballistic missile technology.

In response to a question posed by The Associated Press, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said North Korea’s launch of a spy satellite would threaten regional peace and violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions banning any ballistic launches by the North. It said South Korea will work closely with the international community to get North Korea to face consequences when it commits provocations.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea will likely inform international maritime and telecommunication authorities of its launch plans, likely sometime between May and September.

North Korea placed its first and second Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, but foreign experts say neither transmitted imagery back to North Korea. The U.N. issued sanctions over those launches.

North Korea has avoided fresh U.N. sanctions for its recent ballistic missile tests in 2022 and this year because U.N. Security Council permanent members Russia and China didn’t support U.S. and others’ attempts to toughen sanctions on the North.

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