https://journal-neo.org/2023/04/30/wait ... satellite/
This author will discuss the current round in the confrontation between the two Koreas in his next article, and pause for a moment to look at a more significant event.
On April 18 Kim Jong-un, General secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and head of state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, headed a working party visiting the National Aerospace Development Administration.
He was accompanied by technicians, specialists in the field of scientific and technical communications research and senior officers from the Main technical intelligence division of the Korean People’s Army.
The North Korean leader, after being informed about new technical developments, “said that the development of the aerospace industry is of great importance in the creation of a powerful Socialist economy, which is stimulated and protected by science and technology, and then set goals for the radical development of science and technology in the aerospace sector.” “These goals include, as a priority, satellites for hydrometeorological and geographical monitoring, as well as a communications satellite, which would enable the country to develop systems to respond rapidly to climate emergencies, ensure the effective protection and use of its resources, and provide a powerful stimulus for national economy based on the sciences.”
Kim Jong-un also highlighted the role, strategic value and significance of a military reconnaissance satellite in strengthening the country’s defense capabilities. “For the purposes of strengthening the military, the possession of a military reconnaissance satellite is a top priority, both in view of the current security situation on the Korean Peninsula and also in order to monitor future threats, and this goal is one which must not be abandoned, missed or altered as it is essential to the sovereignty of our state and its right to self-defense.” Especially considering the current international situation, in which satellites are the “most important and highest priority goal,” required in order to strengthen the military’s effectiveness and thus prevent war.
Kim Jong-un therefore set “a number of military goals, including the creation of a committee to prepare for the launch in the shortest possible time of reconnaissance satellite No. 1, which has (as of April 2023) already been developed, to speed up the final preparations for the launch, and also to develop reliable intelligence gathering capabilities by having a number of reconnaissance satellites in operation at all times.” In other words, the first of a series of military spy satellite launches is to take place this month.
While the official reports did not mention this fact, the photographs published by the Korean Central News Agency show that Kim Jong-un was accompanied by his daughter, and experts have scrutinized the pictures for clues about the nature of the satellite and how and when it may be launched.
The photographs show an object in the shape of a six-sided cylinder (unlike the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and-4 satellites, launched in 2012 and 2016 respectively, both of which had the shape of a cube) with four side solar panels and a likely minimum weight of 300 kg, and equipped with two optical cameras. The booster rocket which is to carry it into orbit will probably have three stages, be powered with liquid fuel and be fitted with Baekdusan engines, mounted on Hwasong-14, -15 and -17 ICBMs. However, Jang Young-geun, a rocket expert at South Korea’s Aerospace University has suggested that North Korea may use the new solid-fuel booster or rocket which it used for its recent Hwasong-18 ICBM launch.
To summarize, Kim Jong-un’s high-profile visit may be taken as a sign that a reconnaissance satellite will be launched in the immediate future, perhaps, as hinted above, by the end of April. And although it is true that North Korea has always conducted its rocket launches in accordance with a “schedule of its own,” certain Western experts have noted that Pyongyang may have chosen the timing to coincide with a visit to South Korea by the US president, which is planned for the last week in April.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies claims that if weather conditions are right North Korea may attempt a launch on or around April 23-24, but other experts have suggested that, given the time required for all the technical preparations, North Korea will need several more months before it is ready to launch a satellite into orbit.
Naturally in the West and in South Korea politicians are getting ready to make a fuss. The South Korean Foreign Ministry, speaking through a Ministry official, has called on North Korea to immediately drop its plan to launch its first military reconnaissance satellite. It demands that North Korea heed the warnings and concerns of the international community, immediately cancel its launch plans and comply with its international obligations, including those under resolutions of the UN Security Council prohibiting North Korea from conducting any launches involving ballistic missile technology.
The Ministry official emphasized that any launch of so-called military reconnaissance satellites by North Korea would not only be a clear violation of multiple Security Council resolutions, but also an act of provocation that threatens peace and security in the region.
A spokesperson of the US Department of State has also stressed that the planned launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions, as it would use the same technology as that used in ballistic missiles. “Space launch vehicles (SLVs) incorporate technologies identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles… Any DPRK launch that uses ballistic missile technology, which would include SLVs, violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions.”
Moreover, the Japanese Minister of Defense, Yasukazu Hamada, has called on the military to prepare to shoot down the North Korean spy satellite if fragments of the satellite or the launch vehicle were to fall on Japanese territory. To address this threat the military plans to deploy appropriate resources, including putting on standby Patriot (PAC-3) surface-to-air guided anti-missile units, based in Okinawa Prefecture, as well Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptor missiles.
Unfortunately the Russian media reports on this issue have, as usual, been brief, omitting any qualifications or “if” clauses. The author would therefore like to remind the readers that a) the Japanese have no plans to shoot down the satellite as a preventative measure, and the b) the same thing happened in the past when North Korea attempted to launch satellites. The Japanese anti-missile systems were on standby to shoot down any booster rocket or major fragments of such a rocket if, following an accident, they were about to fall onto Japanese territory or territorial waters.
But if the satellite launch is successful then that would present North Korea’s opponents with a number of problems. Firstly because satellite data is required in order to collect intelligence and to closely monitor the progress of future developments in rocket technology. Experts consider that if North Korea has a network of reconnaissance satellites then it will be able to use them to promptly monitor changes in the disposition of US strategic military resources and to identify precisely and in real time the location, movements and nature of its main targets so that it can launch more accurate missile strikes against these targets. According to Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute, a think tank, “with advanced satellites, North Korea would be able to more precisely strike key military facilities such as the United States Army garrison in Pyeongtaek, which is a grave threat to South Korea and the US.”
Secondly, such a show of strength, especially for military experts who are aware of the capabilities of the military hardware in question, would have the same effect as carrying out nuclear tests, but at much less risk to North Korea’s reputation.
Thirdly, the launch of a satellite would necessarily direct attention to the inherent contradictions in the international regulations. On the on hand, the UN Security Council resolution preventing North Korea from launching ballistic missiles would also prevent it from launching any kind of spacecraft or space equipment. On the other hand, all UN member states have a right to explore and use outer space for peaceful purposes – the prohibition only applies to the launch of military satellites, not reconnaissance satellites.
It is clear that to fully monitor the whole of the Korean Peninsula at least 24 small satellites and several larger ones would be needed Given that fact, it is possible that in the future Pyongyang will seek to develop miniature satellites similar to the CubeSat, and launch them into orbit.
What will happen next? Even if there is no launch in April, the present author would hazard a guess that by the end of this year this goal will have been achieved, triggering a new wave of instability in the region. It is likely that the US and its allies would respond to the launch with a show of strength, and also try to get the UN Security Council to pass another package of sanctions. However it is also likely that Russia and China would oppose such sanctions, and given the likelihood of those countries exercising the power of veto, the US may decide not to attempt this.
As for shooting down missiles in order to “make a point,” hawks have been considering such a step since 2012, but for many reasons this will not happen, at least on the present occasion. Firstly, the North Koreans have more than once stated that such a step will be treated as a declaration of war, and the US and South Korean military administrations are dominated by pragmatists rather than fanatics. Secondly, to the present author’s knowledge, such a step has been discussed in the Pentagon, and the argument put forward by one of the generals went something like this: “Good. So let’s say we can take down a North Korean satellite. But the likelihood of success is not 100%, maybe it’s more like 90%. So let’s think about the consequences of both scenarios, in the event that we hit it, but also in the event that we miss.” After that the issue was dropped from the agenda.
Of course, when the launch takes place, a separate article will cover the event, with a particular focus on the international reaction. For now, it would suffice to simply note that the creation of a spy satellite would be impossible for a country without a developed scientific and technical base, and in the view of Cha Do-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, it is not clear whether North Korea’s satellite would be able to provide sufficiently high-resolution images, “but the main thing is that North Korea needs to do what it has promised, thus sending South Korea and the USA a signal that it has made progress towards achieving its plans.”
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