21.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The North Korean satellite has taken off, the spiral of aggravation has begun! About the launch itself

The author finished the text “waiting for the satellite” very timely, because four hours after the article was submitted to the editorial office, the North Korean missile took off, after which what was expected happened as predicted. In this text we will talk about the launch itself and its technical assessments, and in the next text we will talk about the international reaction and the expected cancellation of the inter-Korean military agreement.

As reported by the KCNA, at 22 hours 42 minutes and 28 seconds on 21 November 2023, the DPRK’s State Aerospace Engineering Directorate successfully launched the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite using a new-type Chollima-1 launch vehicle at the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province. The new type of launch vehicle, Chollima-1, flew normally along the intended flight path and precisely placed the satellite into orbit 705 seconds after launch, at 22:54:13. The satellite will start its information gathering mission from 1 December and the full report can be seen at the link.

Honourable Comrade Kim Jong-un, Secretary-General of the WPK and Chairman of State Affairs of the DPRK, personally observed the launch, after which he “warmly congratulated all cadres, scientists and technicians of the State General Department of Aerospace Engineering and related department who have made great contributions to building up the war deterrence power of our Republic”.

Pyongyang intends to launch more military satellites in the near future, which “will improve intelligence capabilities in the DPRK’s neighbouring regions, especially South Korea.” The launch of the reconnaissance satellite “is a legitimate right of the DPRK to strengthen its right to self-defence”. It will “greatly contribute to improving the combat readiness of the country’s armed forces” in view of the situation in the region where “dangerous military manoeuvres” are being carried out,” the KCNA report stressed.

Judging from photos and video of the launch, the missile was identical in design to the one used in two failed launch attempts in May and August. Multiple rocket plume lines indicated that the missile was powered by multiple engines. It was also conspicuous that the rocket was covered with various logos and letters, including the words “National Aerospace Technology Administration (NATA, in English and Korean)”, “Malligyong-1″ reconnaissance satellite” and “Chollima-1” in Korean.

The next day, November 22, Kim Jong-un visited the Pyongyang General Control and Regulatory Center of the State General Department of Aerospace Technology (more simply called the Mission Control Center in the English and South Korean press), where he was told that the reconnaissance satellite was undergoing a thorough control process for 7-10 days, after which it would officially begin reconnaissance from December 1.

Kim Jong-un said that “the armed forces of the Republic have now taken in hand both the visionary ‘eye’ and the long-range powerful ‘fist’.” And reiterated that many more reconnaissance satellites will be needed to enhance the effectiveness of our powerful strike military assets and for self-defence”.

 On 23 November, Kim Jong-un “met with the members of the non-permanent preparatory committee for the launch of the reconnaissance satellite, who carried out work on the launch of the first reconnaissance satellite, and took a commemorative photograph with them.” In the DPRK, such a solemn photograph is a high sign of encouragement. In the same way, Kim “together with his beloved daughter” warmly congratulated and was photographed with scientists and technicians of the State Aerospace Engineering Department who contributed to the successful launch of the reconnaissance satellite. Honouring the scientists, Kim Jong-un noted that “this astounding event, which made it possible to possess a spy satellite – a watchdog of space, a powerful sight that constantly monitors the military attempts and actions of hostile forces, is an invaluable victory brought about by the independent decision of our Party and the government of the Republic, the fervent patriotic spirit and persistent performance of space-fighter scientists who absolutely support the Party’s design.”  The DPRK leader expressed extreme satisfaction with the successful implementation of the project and highly appreciated the work of NATA.

In addition, a gala reception was held in honour of the launch, to which senior officials, scientists and technicians of the State General Directorate for Aerospace Technology were invited as chief guests.

Kim Jong-un subsequently visited the State General Administration of Aerospace Technology’s (NATA) Control Centre in Pyongyang on several occasions to view the next series of satellite images taken from Malligyong-1. At the time of writing, the last visit took place on 30 November 2023, and the satellite has had time to take images of:

Against this background, the DPRK was recorded carrying out a large-scale expansion of territory and construction of new buildings in the area of the NATA Control Centre.

As for the recognition “by the enemies”, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea confirmed the satellite’s entry into orbit on 22 November: “the relevant conclusion was made based on the results of a comprehensive analysis of flight path data and other parameters. At the same time, establishing the fact of its full-fledged operation will take some time, which will be required for additional analysis by the relevant structures in cooperation with the United States”. Japan also quickly confirmed the presence of an object in Earth’s orbit, which may be a DPRK satellite, while the Pentagon admitted that the satellite was put into Earth orbit only on 28 November. At the same time, the U.S. side stated that it was impossible to verify the information disseminated by the DPRK regarding aerial photography by independent means.

In this context, the publications of the Republic of Korea add to every news about the new images that “the state media of the North again failed to publish the photos taken by the satellite”, and Western and South Korean experts question the ability of “Malligyong” to make high-quality photos”. According to experts in the Republic of Korea, setting up such vehicles and putting them into normal operating mode usually takes time, while the North is moving very hastily, which clearly indicates propaganda purposes.

It took North Korea a long time to achieve success, so let us recall the chronology of previous launches. 31 August 1998: North Korea launches the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite on a Taepodong-1 rocket from the Musudan launch site in North Hamgyong Province, but the launch fails, and propaganda attempts to justify the launch give birth to the “underwater artificial earth satellite” meme….

5 April 2009: North Korea launches the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite on an Unha-2 rocket from the Musudan site, but the launch fails.

13 April 2012: North Korea launches the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite on an Unha-3 rocket from its Tonchaniya spaceport in North Pyongan province. But the rocket crashes shortly after takeoff.

12 December 2012: North Korea launches the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3.2 satellite on an improved version of the Unha-3 from the Tonchanni spaceport. The satellite is put into orbit, but it was unclear what it could do other than broadcast a song about the warlord Kim Il-sung. But the very first article of the author on this resource was devoted to this launch, and he pointed out that firstly, one should not underestimate the scientific and technological potential of the DPRK and generally adhere to a shortsighted view of this country, and secondly, the launch shows that the strategy of pressure and sanctions is unproductive and the North will still develop this direction.

 7 February 2016: North Korea launches the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite on a Kwangmensong rocket from the same spaceport that would eventually be named Sohae. The satellite went into orbit, but not long afterwards failed over time, descending into the dense atmosphere.

31 May 2023: North Korea launches the military reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1 on a Cheollima-1 rocket from the Sohae Cosmodrome. The launch fails due to an “abnormal” second-stage engine firing.

24 August 2023: North Korea again launches the military Malligyong-1 on the same rocket from the same spaceport. Again, a failure due to an error in the “emergency detonation system” during the flight of the third stage. Parts of the rocket fall about 600 kilometres east of the Philippines.

21 November 2023: North Korea finally puts a satellite into orbit, prompting a debate among experts about whether there was “Moscow’s hand in it” amid “growing speculation that Russia may have provided the North with military technology in exchange for North Korea supplying military hardware and ammunition for use in Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

Jang Yong-geun, a professor at Korea Aerospace University, thinks the DPRK “could consider securing hardware technologies such as sensors, actuators and on-board computers to improve their performance, which are difficult to develop on their own.”

Pentagon deputy spokeswoman Sabrina Singh, however, said she was not aware if the launch had anything to do with Russia. The author also notes that if we look at the timing of the work, then even if after Kim Jong-Un’s visit a decision was made to help North Korean space, given the bureaucratic inertia and time to master the donated technology, there would not be enough time to complete this launch. We will examine the Western attempts to find a Russian trace in the North Korean rocket industry in more detail in a separate text.

What will the satellite bring to the North? According to North Korean studies professor Lim Yul Chul of Gyeongnam University, the existence of the reconnaissance satellite “will contribute significantly to enhancing the precision strike capability of North Korean tactical nuclear forces by closely monitoring South Korean and U.S. preemptive strike targets through the reconnaissance satellite system…This essentially means the North’s enhanced preemptive strike capability.”

Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the spy satellite will help the North launch precision strikes as it will enhance the country’s ability to monitor the enemy. In addition, the Cheollima-1 missile could be used as an ICBM, and if North Korea successfully equips it with a nuclear warhead, it could be converted into a military missile. Then, the launch of Cheollima-1, which uses a liquid-fuelled engine similar to that used in the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 ICBMs, is considered a test of the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 for optimal lift-off angle.

Therefore, the Republic of Korea called the satellite launch a serious threat to national security, as the process utilises ICBM-based nuclear weapon delivery technology.

At the same time, Pyongyang perceives its satellite as a manifestation of self-defence, continuing to sharply criticise the militarisation of space. Thus, on November 21, 2023, Lee Seong-jin, a researcher of the DPRK State Aerospace Engineering Directorate, published an article on the KCNA under the title “There is no way to justify the militarisation of space aimed at a preventive strike“, devoted to the forthcoming launch of a South Korean reconnaissance satellite, which is to be launched on November 30 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. From the author’s point of view, it is clear “that the network of spy satellites to be developed and used by South Korean puppets is not defensive in response to someone else’s ‘missile threat’ but offensive in order to carry out their war of aggression.” For “in modern warfare, the intelligence campaign is the first process in preparation for war and the primary condition on which the outcome of the war depends.”

In any case, the U.S. assessed the launch as not part of any country’s right to peacefully explore space. As National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said, “this space launch involved technologies that are directly related to the DPRK’s intercontinental ballistic missile programme“, calling on “all countries to condemn this launch and call on the DPRK to come to the table for serious negotiations”… But about who said what about it and what response measures were taken – in the following materials.

To summarise: the launch of the first national reconnaissance satellite can be put on a par with the first nuclear test or the first successful test of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, and so on.

According to Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev, the DPRK is an example of the fact that not only huge available resources are important, but also a correct goal-setting of “what we need and for what purpose”. It is also the ability to play the long game, not to give up, and to systematically move towards its goal from simple to complex.

After the first satellite launches in the 2010s, Pyongyang took a pause in space launches, and returned to applied space, having brilliantly run a huge distance in military missile technology, including the experience of designing, manufacturing and successfully launching various multi-stage missiles, close to space-powered military ICBMs. In the end, Khrustalev points out, the satellite was launched from its spaceport with its own missiles and with its own national control and measurement infrastructure, while space programmes were under pressure from UN Security Council sanctions.

And in the future, the DPRK has the ability to independently manufacture a rocket suitable for launching more than one such reconnaissance satellite in a single launch, which will accelerate the creation of the required orbital constellation.


Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher at the center for Korean studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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