2023 has been a remarkable time for international spaceflight, but spaceflight does not exist in a vacuum beyond geopolitics, and while some achievements can be hailed on the international stage, others are the grounds for concern and suspicion. This fact is reflected well by the recent launch of a North Korean satellite. The launch was North Korea’s first successful satellite launch since 2016, and followed two identical attempts earlier this year, both of which failed. The launch also represents the first successful launch of North Korea’s new Chŏllima 1 rocket, which was not publicly known to exist prior to its first launch attempt. Most pressingly, the launch which occurred on Tuesday, November 21st was North Korea’s first successful deployment of a reconnaissance satellite, shaking up the global intelligence paradigm.
The launch has triggered a wave of international backlash. The launch, whose announcement did not align with expected international procedures, came as a shock to many in the region. The Chŏllima 1 rocket overflew Japan on its way to orbit, sparking fears of a ballistic missile test and triggering safety systems. Since the launch South Korea has partially suspended a 2018 military agreement it made with North Korea, with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo stating that the launch “demonstrates North Korea has“no will to abide by its terms.” The United States moved the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and an adjoining submarine into the vicinity of the Korean peninsula as a show of force ahead of the spy satellite’s launch.
North Korea’s previous satellites were publicly declared as Earth-observing satellites, with a focus on observing weather patterns and the health of land within North Korea, but their new satellite, Malligyong-1 (meaning “telescope”), has been declared as a spy satellite outright. Malligyong-1 is North Korea’s second satellite delivered into a Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO). SSO is a desirable domain for spy satellites, as it is an orbit that precesses over the course of a year, allowing for consistent lighting conditions on whatever the satellite passes over. While it took some time for the satellite’s delivery into SSO to be confirmed independently, it now has. The day following the launch came with independent observations and confirmation of both the Malligyong-1 satellite and the upper stage which delivered it in orbit. The first stage reportedly experienced a break up after separation, presumed to be a flight termination system or possible intentional self-destruct mechanism. This makes the recovery of debris by other nations, which occurred following their previous attempt, impossible this time.
Spy satellites are not new, as spy satellites and the fear surrounding them date all the way back to the earliest days of the Space Race. Today, The United States, Russia, and China all collectively operate dozens if not hundreds of spy satellites, and are far from the only nations with them. If previous North Korean satellites were indeed only used for domestic applications, the capability is new to North Korea, and therein lies a great deal of the fear surrounding the recent launch. The DPRK declared that South Korea, the United States, and their allies would be the observation targets of the recently launched satellite. The launch beat South Korea’s own inaugural spy satellite (scheduled for November 30th) by 9 days, representing an escalation in efforts for both the North and South to outmatch each other in military capability. South Korea’s first spy satellite will be launching on Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and is the first of five planned.
The situation will continue to develop as the outcome of North Korea’s launch becomes better assessed, and South Korea potentially begins its own spy satellite program in the coming week. Tensions between the two nations are escalating, and for the first time this escalation will be taking place in space. While so much remains unclear, the most that can be stated is that Tuesday’s launch serves as a harrowing reminder of the increasing militarization of space, and the rising pressure to militarise it further.
Hours ago while finalising this article, North Korea claimed to have successfully captured imagery of the United States White House and Pentagon using cameras on-board Malligyong-1. Space Scout cannot independently verify these claims.
Correction: The launch did not follow correct procedure for announcement, resulting in region-wide concern.
Edited by: Nik Alexander