[News analysis] What happens if N. Korea gets its own “2 bombs, 1 satellite”

Posted on : 2023-07-04 17:31 KST Modified on : 2023-07-04 17:31 KST
A cool-headed examination of the technical and military significance of North Korea possessing a reconnaissance satellite would be more useful than simply echoing the same criticisms and denunciations
North Korea released footage of the launch of the Malligyong-1, a reconnaissance satellite, on the Chollima-1 rocket on May 31, shown here. Within two and a half hours, it acknowledged that the launch had failed. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korea released footage of the launch of the Malligyong-1, a reconnaissance satellite, on the Chollima-1 rocket on May 31, shown here. Within two and a half hours, it acknowledged that the launch had failed. (KCNA/Yonhap)

In late May, North Korea launched its first military reconnaissance satellite, dubbed the Malligyong-1, on the Chollima-1 rocket, but the satellite failed to enter orbit.

North Korea’s satellite launches go even further back than its launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which have been successful since 2017. Pyongyang launched its first satellite, called the Kwangmyongsong-1, on a rocket known as the Taepodong-1 in late August 1998.

As North Korea continued to develop ballistic missile technology, it attempted to launch satellites on the Unha launch vehicle in April and December 2012 and in February 2016. The last two cases were successful, but only in the narrow sense of putting lightweight objects of about 100 kilograms into earth orbit; the two satellites reportedly don’t perform their intended function.

The grounds for regarding North Korea’s satellite launches as provocations and for condemning them as such is UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which was adopted in June 2009, following North Korea’s second nuclear weapon test that May.

The text of the resolution “demands that the DPRK [that is, North Korea] not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology,” a phrase that has appeared in every subsequent Security Council resolution on this issue.

Since the booster rockets used for ballistic missiles and the launch vehicles used for satellites are virtually identical, the resolution effectively forbids North Korea from aerospace development for peaceful purposes. Needless to say, the North is disinclined to agree to that demand.

Need for cutting-edge tech

North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration immediately made a public acknowledgment of the failed launch of the reconnaissance satellite in May and announced it would carry out another launch in short order while providing a helpful explanation of the main technical reasons for the failure.

As soon as preparations are complete, North Korea will carry out another satellite launch, and there’s no way to prevent that short of an act of war, such as a preemptive strike or interceptor launch.

Consequently, a cool-headed examination of the technical and military significance of North Korea possessing a reconnaissance satellite would be more useful than simply echoing the same criticisms and denunciations.

At the eighth Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021, North Korea announced a “Five-Year Plan for Weapon Systems and Defense Science Development.” The key elements included increasing and diversifying its nuclear weapons and means of transportation, along with the development of reconnaissance satellites.

In general, it appears to be going ahead according to plan. In the cases of the nuclear-powered submarine and reconnaissance satellite development — where details on progress had remained unavailable to the outside world — the latter was the first to be made public.

Once the military reconnaissance satellite is in operation, North Korea will have the trio of an atomic (fission) bomb, a hydrogen (fusion) bomb, and an artificial satellite.

In developing the necessary strategic weapons, the North has adopted an approach of showing its weapons off to its own public and the rest of the world once the basic elements are in place — claiming “success” or “completion,” and then proceeding over time to “perfect” them.

Launching a proper reconnaissance satellite entails a higher level of technological capabilities than ICBMs (where the North has already reached a considerable level) or the space launch vehicles that it has used for past launches.

The satellites operate in low orbits at altitudes of around 200 to 700 kilometers from Earth’s surface, and they have to achieve a critical speed of at least 8 kilometers per second to orbit the planet. At the critical speed, a satellite orbits the planet about once every 90 minutes.

A larger payload weight demands stronger rocket propulsion. The Chollima rocket would have received considerable extra thrust in its second and third stages compared with the Unha rocket in the past.

Accurately getting the satellite into the optimal orbit to perform its reconnaissance role efficiently also poses a technical challenge. In terms of camera resolution, it is believed to fall well short of the 1 meter or less needed for military use — when we consider that the resolution of a test item unveiled by the North in December 2022 was only around 20 meters.

Nothing has yet been learned about the more advanced technology relating to communications with other satellites and base stations or the satellite’s power supply and operation controls.

Even if North Korea does succeed with a new launch attempt, it will only be a start.

In light of Earth’s rotation, ongoing reconnaissance on the Korean Peninsula would require the positioning of multiple satellites at different latitudes and longitudes. During an April 18 visit to the National Aerospace Development Administration, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also demanded the launches of satellites for multiple purposes — not only military reconnaissance, but also meteorological observation, Earth observation, and communications.

What would a North Korea with satellite capabilities mean for the military situation on the Korean Peninsula?

Mutual-surveillance system in NE Asia could be positive

The most direct significance in military terms would be a major leap in North Korea’s intelligence capabilities. Without reconnaissance aircraft or satellites, North Korea has depended largely on publicly available information for intelligence on the South Korean military and US Forces Korea.

If the North is able to combine multiple low-orbit reconnaissance satellites with high-resolution optical cameras, synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), infrared detection, and other examples of relatively widely available equipment — even if it would be hard pressed to obtain those things on its own — it would acquire detailed information about the positions and activities of military equipment and units in various parts of the western Pacific region, including the Korean Peninsula, Okinawa, Taiwan and Guam.

One would be correct to characterize this as a qualitative change on the operational level that allows for military targeting and attacks, not merely a strategic war deterrent.

If North Korea greatly develops its satellite capabilities in the mid- to long term, the possibility of space warfare will have to be given some serious thought. Space warfare can be broken down into militarization, which uses space to support on-the-ground operations, and weaponization, which refers to placing weapons in orbit. While operating military reconnaissance satellites or missile defenses falls in the former, weaponization is forbidden by international law and has not yet been formally carried out.

But satellites equipped with nuclear weapons and so-called “killer satellites” capable of destroying enemy satellites are known to have been developed in top secret by Americans and Soviets since the Cold War. It’s been reported that China has been developing its own anti-satellite weapons in recent years as well.

In terms of physics, the precise orbits and location of artificial satellites are public knowledge. Considering that they are completely defenseless, if an anti-satellite weapon were to be used against one, it would result in mutually assured destruction. It’s expected that North Korea, too, will devise measures for deterring space warfare.

Though it may be only an item on Pyongyang’s wish list for now, if North Korea were to possess a military reconnaissance satellite, it could serve a purpose of easing military tensions and building trust. That is, all the nations that make up Northeast Asia being capable of mutual surveillance and reconnaissance, could have the effect of preventing the outbreak of war based on miscalculations in the region. As the time-old arms control theory saying goes: “Trust, but verify.”

The role that reconnaissance satellites played in verifying the implementation of the nuclear disarmament agreement between the US and the Soviet Union cannot be understated. Of course, this stood on a foundation of actively maintained channels of communication.

Here’s hoping that North Korea’s reconnaissance satellites, too, will be used not for war but as tools that contribute to surveillance and verification needed for mutual trust and disarmament.

By Moon Jang-ryul, former professor at Korea National Defense University

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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