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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Radio Free Asia

North Korea botches firing 'space launch vehicle,' South Korean military says

Rocket believed to be carrying spy satellite fell into the Yellow Sea after an 'abnormal' flight.

By Eugene Whong for RFA 2023.05.30 -- North Korea launched what it called a "space launch vehicle," but after an "abnormal" flight it fell into the Yellow Sea, South Korea's military said.

South Korea's Yonhap News reported that Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff detected the launch at 6:29 a.m. on Wednesday, local time, from Tongchang-ri on the country's northwestern coast and it fell about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of South Korea's Eocheong island.

The seemingly failed launch came one day after North Korea revealed that it would launch its first military reconnaissance satellite to monitor U.S. and South Korean military activities, including regularly scheduled joint exercises.

In a statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Ri Pyong Chol, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Korean Workers' Party, said that the satellite would launch in June, but the launch was on the final day of May.

He said it would counter various activities by United States and South Korean forces, including a plan to deploy an American nuclear submarine to South Korean waters for the first time in 40 years.

The satellite would be "indispensable to tracking, monitoring, discriminating, controlling and coping with in advance [or] in real time, the dangerous military acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces, openly revealing their reckless ambition for aggression as time passes by, and strengthening the military preparedness of the armed forces of the DPRK," Ri wrote, using a acronym for the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The launch occurred about a month after a summit between South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden where the two sides agreed to increase security cooperation and reaffirmed their commitment to extended deterrence in response to the North Korean nuclear threat.

Radio Free Asia reported two weeks ago that a North Korean spy satellite had passed preliminary testing and was ready to be mounted on a rocket, and that satellite imagery revealed increased activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the country's northwest. Experts in that report told RFA that they anticipated that a launch would be possible in June or July.

Though Ri's statement did not reveal the planned date of launch, Reuters reported Monday that North Korea notified Japan that it would happen between May 31 and June 11.

Tokyo said it would shoot down any threatening projectile in its territory, while Seoul and Washington have said the planned launch would violate U.N. resolutions intended to limit Pyongyang's missile capabilities.

"Space launch vehicles (SLVs) incorporate technologies that are identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)," a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told RFA's Korean Service in an email.

"We urge the DPRK to refrain from further unlawful activity and call on Pyongyang to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy," the spokesperson said.

'Too patchy'

Though North Korea's regional neighbors may have viewed the launch as a cause for alarm, experts doubted how useful a spy satellite would be for North Korea.

"I think the DPRK track record in space is a little too patchy to develop a cohesive narrative, or to tell if this new satellite is more than 'normal' incremental progress," said Benjamin Silverstein, an analyst for the Carnegie Space Project at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, speaking before the launch occurred.

"So far, they have only demonstrated the ability to put small payloads in low Earth orbit, and I would expect this upcoming launch to continue that trend," he said.

Given the flurry of development at the Sohae launch site and advances in rocket technology, Pyongyang could attempt to launch the satellite into a geostationary orbit, he said. While that would be a "big jump in productivity," it wouldn't necessarily offer better surveillance than several low-Earth orbit satellites.

A singular satellite in a low-Earth orbit would not be very effective, Markus Schiller, Founder and Director of ST Analytics GmbH in Munich, told RFA.

"One ground station would be enough to receive data, however, only when the satellite is in direct sight of the ground station, which - depending on the exact orbit - could be just a few minutes every week, thus limiting the amount of data that could be downloaded as well as its up-to-dateness," said Schiller.

Schiller noted that North Korea has failed to launch satellites in 1998, 2009 and April 2012, and successfully launched satellites in December 2012 and February 2016, but the latter two satellites, which remain in orbit, are ineffective because they "tumble," rather than remaining in an optimal orientation needed to send signals to the Earth.

Though analysts have said that the satellite North Korea was planning to launch was no better than commercial imagery satellites, it would still have been useful to Pyongyang, said Jacob Bogle, curator of the AccessDPRK.com website, which analyzes satellite imagery of North Korea.

"Even attaining the same image resolution as commercial satellite companies use would provide North Korea with a substantial boost in their surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities," he said.

Reporting by Jamin Anderson and Lee Sangmin for RFA Korean. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Updated after the launch occurred.

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