29.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Launch of a Satellite by North Korea Causes a New Turn in Escalating Tensions Part 5: It is Not Only About a South Korean Satellite

Launch of a Satellite by North Korea Causes

The final text in the series on the North Korean satellite launch will focus on the military and political response of “the southern side”, which had several aspects.

The first aspect is the strengthening of the US strategic forces. An aircraft carrier group including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine Santa Fe (SSN-763) arrived in Busan before the launch and visited the Navy base on the Jeju-do island after it.

It is alleged, that on October 23, in response to such actions, North Korea launched an unidentified ballistic missile presumably of intermediate range from the Sunan area in Pyongyang into the Sea of Japan, but the launch failed.

The second aspect that is worth paying attention to, is the South Korean lap of the space race between the two countries.

Firstly, a US reconnaissance satellite was launched from the Vandenberg US Air Force Base in California, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. But the launch did not go that smoothly, and had to be postponed from November 30 to December 2 due to bad weather. But on the aforementioned date, the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea (the ROK) reported that the satellite had been put into orbit about four minutes after the launch, the communication with the ground station had been established, which meant that the satellite was operating in normal condition.

The satellite was the first one of five military reconnaissance satellites in total of the Project 425 program, that are to be put into orbit by 2025. One satellite should be equipped with electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) sensors, and the four others with high-power synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The goal of the program is to provide the ROK with the capability to independently conduct reconnaissance from space, track threats coming from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, monitor the regions, adjacent to the Korean Peninsula, create a basis for the development of the national space defense force and implement the concept of the “Korean three-axis defense system”.

South Korea plans to launch four more synthetic aperture radar satellites by 2025 as part of the 1.2 trillion Won (USD 918.2 million) project, starting with an electro-optical and infrared satellites. This is important because previously, South Korea relied on US commercial and military resources for high-resolution images. Also, reconnaissance satellites will be the “eye” for South Korea’s Kill Chain preemptive strike system, as they will be able to quickly detect signs of a potential North Korean nuclear or missile attack.

In this context, the North Korea tried to accuse the US and the UN of double standards. On December 4, a spokesman for the DPRK’s State Aerospace Engineering General Office issued the statement “It is Inacceptable to Apply Illegal Double Standards to Space, as the Common Heritage of Mankind”, criticizing the South Korean launch as “an impudent act of double standards”. “The tragic situation where the legality of the launch of two identical satellites is determined based on the fact that one satellite belongs to the independent and sovereign Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the other belongs to the dependent and pro-American “Republic of Korea”, makes it clear who is really guilty in disturbing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

On 4 December the US Defense Department responded that South Korea does not fall under the UN sanctions because it is not “the subject of numerous resolutions of the UN Security Council in regard to its dangerous and destabilizing activity in this region”.

To remind you, Resolution No. 1718 of the UN Security Council, approved right after the nuclear tests had been conducted by Pyongyang in October 2006, forbids North Korea to launch ballistic missiles or conduct further nuclear tests. And in accordance with Resolution No. 2270, approved in 2016, it is forbidden for the UN member states to render technical assistance to North Korea or provide training and services, connected with production, use and maintenance of military facilities.

Senior scientific employee of the Korean Institute on National Unification Cho Han-bum explained that “every state has the right to conduct space research. But in case of North Korea, the recent launch of a space satellite using technologies for ballistic missiles is definitely forbidden by the international law”. Other expert Pak Won-gon argued that “the work on the satellite program by North Korea was part of the plan on strengthen its military power to achieve its final goal, i.e. to bring communism on the whole Korean Peninsula. And this is another reason why these actions cannot avoid international critic”.

At the same time, South Korea tries to create a military system with the use of commercial satellites. On November 28, 2023 the Defense Technology Research Institute under the State Agency of Defense Development signed the project with Hanwha Systems Co. for 39.8 billion Won (30.6 million USD) for the development of military communication systems with the use of Nanwha commercial satellites, operating at the height of less than 2000 km.

The Agency of Defense Development confirmed that research and development of new satellite technologies will be held till November 2025. A new security system for preventing military-related information leaks is to be set up. Military floodgates, small ground stations and satellite terminals for communication satellites for the low earth orbit will also be set up. When the development is complete, a pilot program will be launched by the military.

The project is expected to raise the operational capabilities of the armed forces, namely the integration of low orbit satellites into the military communication system, to raise operational capabilities of various military platforms and secure permanent communication in difficult local conditions, such as the mountaneous areas.

Thirdly, it is worth noting an attempt, albeit at a relatively low authority level, to bring an idea again to strike down a North Korean satellite to show “who runs the show”. Sheryll Klinkel, strategic communicator of the US Space Command, said that “various reversible and irreversible means can be used to strip the opponent of the space and anti-space capabilities”.

This statement was more of a private character, but on December 2 a representative of the North Korean Ministry of Defense published a statement for the press under the headline “Any Violation of the North Korean Space Equipment will be Treated as a Declaration of War to our Country”. Ms Klinkel’s statement was clarified: the American Space Command is capable of physically destroying not only enemy satellites, but also their ground control stations, as well as destroying the space forces of enemy states using radio jamming systems and cyberattacks. “The alarming hostile position of the US Space Forces towards the DPRK’s reconnaissance satellite cannot be ignored in any way,” since Article 8 of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, notes that objects launched into space are subject to the jurisdiction of the state that launched them. Their ownership does not pass to strangers regardless of whether they have returned to Earth or not, which means that the Malligyeon-1 reconnaissance satellite is part of the sovereign territories of the DPRK”. An attack on it, therefore, “is a challenge to the sovereignty of our state, or more precisely, a declaration of war on the DPRK.”

Moreover, in the opinion of North Korea, a satellite, that performs only an observation function, is not considered a space weapon, and if the United States declares it a “military threat”, that must be eliminated, then “the numerous US reconnaissance satellites, which daily and hourly specially monitor the main strategic points of our state in the airspace over the Korean Peninsula, should become the primary targets of destruction.”

Therefore, from now on, “the DPRK will take into account retaliatory measures at the level of the right to self-defense to reduce and eliminate the survivability of US reconnaissance satellites, exercising its legitimate rights, given international rights and domestic law.”

According to Vladimir Khrustalyov, the North Korean threat to respond with an attack on American satellites is technically feasible. As he writes in his telegram channel, firstly, the DPRK has ICBMs, including in equipment for carrying out space explosions, with all the (generation of plasma clots, clouds of charged particles, electromagnetic pulses, illumination of optics, etc.). The same applies to games with hinged trajectories with huge apogees.

Secondly, the DPRK is a country that makes medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, as well as space launch vehicles, as well as means of radar monitoring of the air and the outer space and anti-aircraft missiles of various types. In general, it is a basic technological package for the creation and deployment of entry-level anti-satellite weapons.

And we live in the 2020-s. Many things that were science fiction even in the 1980s are already in civilian public goods. This makes it easier for newcomer countries to create anti-satellite systems. Moreover, even ensuring the destruction of the target with a direct kinetic hit. And not just a powerful nuclear explosion in space near the target.

As for the rest, the remilitarization of the DMZ continues, and the DPRK’s nuclear missile program is subject to international but impotent condemnation. On December 4, the UN General Assembly adopted three resolutions condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests and calling for the renunciation of nuclear weapons.

In particular, the resolution on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted with 181 votes in favor, 1 against and 4 abstentions. The document condemns North Korea’s nuclear tests and stresses the need for joint efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula by peaceful means. It is noteworthy that China and Russia voted in favor of it.

In addition, the UN General Assembly voted on the resolution “Stages for the Creation of a Joint Road Map to a World Without Nuclear Weapons”, which contained the wording on the inadmissibility of the DPRK having the status of a nuclear state in accordance with the NPT, prepared by Japan. 148 countries voted in favor, 7 against, including North Korea, China, Iran and the Russian Federation.

The third document was a resolution, designed to “intensify the implementation of nuclear disarmament obligations in the interests of creating a world without nuclear weapons.” It stresses, that Pyongyang must fulfill its obligations to achieve denuclearization under the CVID scheme (complete, verifiable and irreversible). The document also demands, that the DPRK should abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs, return to the NPT regime as soon as possible, and comply with the IAEA agreement on security measures. The resolution was adopted with 133 votes in favor, 26 against and 25 abstentions.

However, unlike resolutions of the UN Security Council, documents, adopted by the General Assembly, are not legally binding.

On 6 December, the G7 leaders (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan) issued a joint statement, following the online meeting, calling for the complete and irreversible disposal of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of the DPRK. “We underline our call for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible disposition of all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.” The G7 leaders “strongly condemn the ongoing ballistic missile launches, the recent launch of a military satellite using ballistic missile technology, as well as the supply of North Korean weapons to Russia. All these actions violate the UN Security Council resolutions.” Besides, Pyongyang was called on to respect human rights, facilitate access to the country for international humanitarian organizations and immediately solve the problem of abducted foreign citizens. But in this context, the words of the self-proclaimed world leaders are similar to sabre-rattling.

Perhaps, we can say that circles on water went away, and we sit down with a delay at the digest of inter-Korean tensions, reflecting the chronicles of the events of the last quarter of 2023.


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

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