23.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea launches a satellite, causing an escalation in tensions Part Three: Discussions about the satellite’s capabilities and the Russian connection

Discussions about the satellite’s capabilities and the Russian connection

North Korea’s successful launch of a satellite on November 21 has led to another wave of speculation, both about the satellite’s capabilities and about potential military-technological cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. This is largely due to the syndrome noted more than once, in which anti-Pyongyang propaganda first comes up with certain clichés and then begins to believe in them.

The DPRK is seen as an “Evil State” and thus incapable of real success. Any real achievements are therefore dismissed – “the new housing developments were built to distract the population from economic problems” – or denigrated. In the case of the satellite, this denigration has taken two forms.

The first is to understate the satellite’s capabilities. Thus, the South Korean military, based on an analysis of fragments collected in May, believes that Malligyong-1 has a spatial resolution of three meters, much lower than that of commercial satellites, and thus is not considered sophisticated enough for military use. For comparison, the Pleiades Neo satellites operated by France’s Airbus have a spatial resolution of 30 centimeters, while SkySat has a special resolution of about 70 centimeters.

From this it is concluded that North Korea has been technically unable to make any significant progress in this area in the six months since the first launch.

The KCNA’s news reports are dismissed as propaganda: “North Korea claims to have photographed US aircraft carriers and naval bases in Hawaii just 10 hours after launch. While this is not impossible, a military satellite requires months of testing, verification and correction to work properly.” Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, even suggested that the “North Korean photos” could be found on Google Earth. Dr. Lee Ho-ryung, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), also noted that North Korea has not made any of the satellite photos publicly available, probably because of their low resolution.

However, defense officials refused to comment on reports that South Korean and Japanese-made semiconductors and digital cameras had been found among the recovered debris of the launch vehicle and satellite. According to a number of sources, the examination and analysis of the North Korean launch vehicle fragments recovered after the initial failed launch attempt in May this year revealed that South Korean-made electronic components were used in key units and assemblies. These are believed to have been smuggled to the DPRK via China or other countries.

South Korea’s intelligence service is adopting a more cautious approach, insisting that until the DPRK publishes photographs taken by Malligyong-1 it will be impossible to determine its technical characteristics and capabilities;

The US has been similarly cautious. On November 28 Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said that the US is aware that a North Korean military reconnaissance satellite has entered orbit. But as for Pyongyang’s claims about alleged satellite photos of the White House and Pentagon, there are plenty of such images on the Internet. It is also questionable whether the quality of the photos is sufficient enough to aid military operations, given that the North Koreans most likely did not have the ability to acquire a high-resolution camera for satellite reconnaissance purposes.

However, analysts say North Korea will ultimately resolve this problem, and if the North accomplishes that, the potential security risks will become much more damaging than originally thought.

Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University and president of the Convergence Institute for National Unification, says that “someday North Korea will master the technology to fix the current problem. We must not downplay its space capabilities.”

Cha Doo-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, questioned the North Korean satellite’s military value, but took note of its engine system’s potential for a ballistic missile program and advancements in satellite development in the future. “The fact that North Korea has secured an engine thrust to launch an object weighing around 300 kg into orbit has implications for its future missile development. It means that the North has acquired the capability to carry nuclear warheads without having to making them too small,” Cha said.

A report by the American website 38 North notes that it’s not just about resolution, but also about the number of satellites – and that it will only be possible to talk about a serious threat when there is a whole group of satellites in orbit.

The second type of denigration is the claim that a successful launch could only have been accomplished with Russian assistance. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken openly claimed that “Russia has provided North Korea with technical assistance in exchange for arms” during his visit to Seoul.

As early as November 23 representatives of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service informed members of the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, in a confidential briefing, that “during the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latter publicly expressed his willingness to support the launch itself. “After the September summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jon-un, North Korea provided Russian specialists with its blueprints and data on the first and second stages of the Chollima-1 satellite launch vehicle, and the Russian experts analyzed this data and provided the North Koreans with the results..”  There is no specific data on this issue, but as South Korean MP Yoo Sang-bum told the media after the meeting, “there is intelligence that the North provided blueprints and data related to the vehicles used in its first and second attempts and Russia provided its analysis.”

ROK Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said in an interview with media representatives that North Korea is believed to have overcome its engine problems in its satellite with Russia’s assistance, and an anonymous military official told reporters that an 80-ton liquid fuel engine was transferred from Russia to the North even before the September summit, and that evidence suggests that Russian engineers entered the North after the summit.

Western experts have been making such claims for a long time, and not only in the context of the satellite launch. After all, two evil dictatorships are obviously cooperating in threatening the world, and such experts as Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have “found indications that Russia may have already crossed that line by supplying operational Topol-M ICBMs to North Korea, which used them as the basis for its Hwasong-18 solid-fuel missile.” This claim is based on the fact that the Hwasong-18 is suspiciously similar to the Topol-M, both in terms of the relative proportions of its stages and its comparable dimensions, and, as Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev has noted, it is hard to believe that in all these years the DPRK has not taken the chance to study freely-available materials relating to Russian missile launches, and learn about the specific features of solid-fuel ICBMs designed for land-based mobile missile systems, which are described even in non-classified textbooks on missile engineering. Moreover, since the DPRK’s missiles, both in terms of the combination of technical solutions applied and general layouts, are similar to those of French and American missiles, does that mean that such “experts” believe that the USA and France are secretly helping the DPRK?

German missile technology expert Markus Schiller has also claimed that Russia may have provided technical assistance for the DPRK’s development of a new propulsion system. This view is shared by Bruce Bennett, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, who has noted the external similarities between Russia’s Iskander operational-tactical missile system and North Korea’s KN-23 (“Kimskander”) missile system. Based on these similarities, he suggests other hardware may also have been “copied.”

On the other hand, Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace, insists there is no reason to believe that Russian technology was used in creating the propulsion system for the new missile.

Following the summit between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, South Korean experts have already managed to set out five scenarios or directions for possible cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang in the field of space and satellite technology.

  1. The Russian Federation could be providing the DPRK with its Angara space launch vehicle (its engine’s propulsion system is similar to that of the first stage of the South Korean Nuri rocket, launched in 2013).
  2. Russia could be providing support for the development of North Korea’s Chollima-1 launch vehicle. Its engine is believed to be based on the Paektusan propulsion system, which in turn is based on the Soviet RD-250 made by the Yuzhmash Plant in Ukraine. Russia could be providing technical assistance and support for the development of the engine for the Chollima-1. Hong Min, a senior Research Fellow at the South Korean Institute of National Unification, shares this view, while Yang Moo-jin, head of the University of North Korean Studies believes it is highly likely that Moscow may have helped Pyongyang solve its problems with the fuel system of the second stage engine of the launch vehicle, which caused the failure of the first two attempts to launch the satellite.
  3. Help with the basic components of the satellite. Moscow could be providing Pyongyang with the technology to build the satellite, and the cameras and other equipment to be installed on the device. The Malligyong-1 military reconnaissance satellite could be launched with the support of the Russian Federation, perhaps even using a Russian carrier rocket and from a Russian launch site.
  4. Infrastructure support for testing and trials. Russia could conduct high-tech tests in the interests of North Korea, or provide the necessary equipment.
  5. Providing access to an existing satellite reconnaissance network. Russia could give the DPRK access to intelligence received by its own satellites. In addition, there are various possible options for the sharing, leasing and selling of spy satellites, and training North Korean specialists in the relevant field.

Another group of experts considers the Russian Federation’s transfer of launch vehicle technologies to North Korea to be unlikely. It is more likely that it may provide North Korea with individual satellite creation and production technologies. In addition, it is impossible to rule out the possibility of the two countries entering into agreements on the exchange of intelligence, including Russian satellite intelligence, as well as on giving the DPRK access to data from the GLONASS navigation system. Professor Nam Sung-wook, by the way, considers the possibility of North Korea obtaining the technology used in Russia’s GLONASS space navigation satellite system to be a “worst-case scenario”: “If that happens, the consequences will spiral out of control not only for South Korea, but also for the United States.”

What is the proof? South Korean media wrote that “according to Flightradar24, the Russian Air Force’s Il-62M flew from Vladivostok to Pyongyang on November 22, the day after the DPRK’s launch of a reconnaissance satellite, and Bruce Bennett concluded “I think it is highly likely that (Russian) scientists specializing in satellites were on board.” Again that phrase, “highly likely”!

In this context, on November 22 Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to a question about media claims that the Russian Federation has transferred military technologies to North Korea:

“The accusations made by the “Collective West” concerning Russia’s “illegal” military and technical cooperation with the DPRK are empty words unsupported by evidence, and are couched in their favorite “highly likely” style. Instead of offering evidence, they talk about probabilities. Among other things, we would like to ask who empowered the US, Japan or other countries to be investigators (and sometimes even judges) of other states’ bilateral relations?

“Russia is responsibly fulfilling its international obligations, including under UN Security Council resolutions. This does not prevent us from developing traditional relations of friendship and cooperation with our neighbors, including the DPRK, our relations with which have deep historical roots.

There is no need to look for hidden reasons here and blame us for things that are not our fault. We need to see the root causes of instability in the region. They are connected with the geopolitical ambitions of the United States.”

Significantly, a Pentagon’s spokesperson has said that she was unaware of any technical assistance provided by Russia to North Korea in connection with the satellite program. Lee Choon-geun, a rocket expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, has said that Vladimir Putin’s statements when meeting with his North Korean counterpart may indicate that Moscow will seek to transfer satellite manufacturing technology to Pyongyang, but not make satellites for him.

The present author also takes the view that, based on the timing and bureaucratic inertia (orders take time to execute), there has not been enough time for the transferred technologies to be implemented. In addition, the final stage of development and preparation for launch would only be successful if Moscow handed over the entire satellite to Pyongyang, as otherwise there would be problems with compatibility between the launch vehicle and the control center software.

But as for how any further development of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang will affect the DPRK’s rocket and space programs, only time will tell.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Related articles: