Korean peninsula space race sees South and North launch tit for tat spy sats

North claims it took photos of stuff. South points to success of homegrown booster

A little more than a week after North Korea claimed to have launched its first indigenous military reconnaissance satellite, South Korea has done the same – then followed up by launching another sat on its own rocket.

The first South Korean satellite launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a Falcon-9 just after 1000 local time on December 1, according to the country's defense ministry. The satellite established ground communication and it was confirmed in orbit where it will perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions once it passes standard operating tests.

Two days later, the country followed up with another launch – this time of a private commercial satellite that used its own solid-propellant space launch vehicle.

"In a situation where North Korea continues to pose security threats, such as launching a reconnaissance satellite in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, the success of this solid-propellant space launch vehicle launch will accelerate the acquisition of space-based surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, which are the core of the Korean three-axis system," South Korea's Department of Defense declared on Monday.

The "three-axis" system is a South Korean plan for deterring and handling North Korean threats. It includes as its first axis the "kill chain," or pre-emptively striking against adversaries if signs of imminent attack are detected – something that is difficult to execute without space technology in place to detect the attack. The second axis is "Korea and Missile Defense," or intercepting launched missiles. And third, there's "Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation" – a vow to strike back at Pyongyang in case of aggression.

North Korea claims it launched an anticipated first successful spy satellite on November 21, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions that bar the pariah state from using ballistic missile technology.

The day after the launch, South Korea partially suspended a 2018 agreement with the North aimed at reducing tensions, thus allowing Seoul to resume surveillance flights in the no-fly zone at the Military Demarcation Line that serves as the land border.

"Since we suspended the no-fly zone, our military can operate with more flexibility in surveillance and reconnaissance and I think training will be possible in the air space," declared South Korea's joint chiefs of staff spokesperson Lee Sung-jun in a briefing.

Not to be outdone, North Korea completely revoked its participation in the agreement and deployed troops at the border the following day. A statement on state mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) asserted its right to a reconnaissance satellite and engaged in oversized rhetoric against the "enemy" South and its "gangsters" for becoming "extremely hysterical with confrontation."

South Korea wasn't the only country to draw ire from the land of Kim Jong Un. The US received multiple lengthy lashings on KNCA, complete with threats of "responsive action measures" for applying fresh sanctions as a response to the launch – measures also taken by South Korea, Japan and Australia.

North Korea has claimed its reconnaissance satellite is working, actually really well thank you, and even has its own satellite operation room.

The country also claims its space program has produced images of the White House, Pentagon, US aircraft carriers at Norfolk naval base, as well as military bases in South Korea, Guam, and Italy.

North Korea has not produced those photos.

"I will say that there are plenty of images of the Pentagon and the White House online," Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder reportedly responded to the claims.

North Korea tried but failed to launch two "reconnaissance satellites" before the supposed sat's allegedly successful launch on November 21. South Korea recovered one such failure from the Yellow Sea and deduced it had very limited military capabilities – a conclusion that lent credence to a theory that North Korea has used a sense of entitlement to a space program as a cover for testing ballistic missiles against international rules.

South Korea has a contract with SpaceX to send four more spy satellites into orbit by 2025. North Korea has also vowed to continue to launch its spacecraft.

The South was late to enter the global space race thanks to a since-lifted Cold War-era agreement with the US that prohibited it from developing a space program.

North Korea, meanwhile, has its own challenges, but has reportedly received some assistance from Russia in exchange for running a munitions factory. ®

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