North Korea’s spy satellite launch: All you need to know

Pyongyang says its Malligyong-1 military reconnaissance satellite is in orbit, but some remain sceptical.

Kim Jong Un celebrating the launch of the spy satellite Malligyong-1. He is smiling and people around him are clapping.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates the launch of the spy satellite [KCNA via Reuters]

North Korea has said it successfully launched a military spy satellite on its third attempt in six months.

State media said the rocket took off at 10.42pm (13:42 GMT) on Tuesday night from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station and “accurately put the reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1 on its orbit” about 12 minutes later, state-run news agency KCNA reported.

The launch came just hours after Pyongyang had notified Japan of its intention to launch a satellite between November 22 and December 1.

Officials in neighbouring countries as well as experts around the world are now trying to verify the claim, which would be a breach of longstanding United Nations resolutions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Here’s what we know:

Was it a success?

State media certainly wanted to show that it was, publishing photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling broadly following the launch, surrounded by cheering scientists and engineers in white uniforms.

Attempts in May and August to launch the satellite, a key part of Kim’s military modernisation plans, ended in failure with the rocket plunging into the sea.

North Korea’s neighbours and their allies are taking a cautious approach to its purported success this time.

Japan said it was still analysing the launch and “at this point is not confirming whether the satellite had entered into an orbit around the Earth”, chief government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said.

South Korea and the United States said their militaries were also assessing the launch.

Analysts said it could take some time to work out whether the satellite is in orbit and operating.

“To assess the success of this launch, it is crucial not only to determine whether the projectile entered orbit but also to secure the ability to adjust and conduct reconnaissance from that orbit,” said Hong Min, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “This includes verifying the capability to take pictures with optical cameras and transmitting them appropriately to the satellite centre.”

a rocket carrying the reconnaissance satellite 'Malligyong-1' before its launch
The rocket carrying the reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1 ahead of the launch [KCNA via KNS and AFP]

Did Russia help?

Pyongyang has been drawing closer to Moscow in recent years, with Kim travelling to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in September for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and visiting weapons factories in Russia’s east.

After the Vostochny talks, Putin indicated his nation could help Pyongyang build satellites, and Seoul and Washington have subsequently accused Pyongyang of shipping weapons to Russia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this month that military ties between North Korea and Russia were “growing and dangerous”, while South Korea’s spy agency has said North Korea may have benefitted from Russian assistance.

Many experts are doubtful that Moscow could have provided game-changing assistance in just two months, however.

“It’s much too early for the North Koreans to have integrated any assistance Russia may have agreed to supply,” Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said in a post on the social media platform X. “Maybe the Russians gave them some advice, but it’s normal for countries to launch and learn.”

Chang Young-keun, a professor at Korea Aerospace University, said it would have been impossible for the North to rebuild a satellite with Russian technology or hardware assistance within that time.

“But Russia could have offered some analysis on previous failures and telemetry data,” he said.

Regardless of whether Russia contributed directly to Tuesday night’s launch, North Korea is “profiting handsomely from Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at CSIS, and Ellen Kim, deputy director and Korea Chair at CSIS, observed in a report following the launch.

“By giving weapons and ammunition to Russia, North Korea is receiving not just food and fuel assistance but also military satellite technology and possibly other advanced technology such as nuclear-powered submarines and ballistic missiles.”

The Washington, DC-based think tank said satellite imagery it had gathered since the Kim-Putin summit suggested an “unprecedented number of arms transfers and other trade activities taking place at the Nanjin port and Khansan-Tumangang border between the two countries”.

How could the satellite be used?

North Korea has said the satellite is necessary for it to deal with alleged threats from South Korea and the United States, and will improve its ability to monitor its neighbour.

On Wednesday, state media reported Kim had already reviewed photographs of US military bases in Guam sent from the Malligyong-1.

Kim “watched the aerospace photos of Andersen Air Force Base, Apra Harbor and other major military bases of the US forces taken in the sky above Guam in the Pacific, which were received at 9:21am on Nov 22,” it said.

However, some analysts are sceptical about the satellite’s capabilities.

Kim Jong Un observing the rocket launch. He is wearing a brown jacket and has his back to the camera. There is an orange ball of flame lighting up the night sky.
Kim observing Tuesday night’s launch. State media said more launches were planned [KCNA via AFP]

Vann Van Diepen, a former US government weapons expert who works with the Stimson Center in Washington, said that photos shared when Kim visited a production facility earlier this year suggested it was likely to be small and solar-powered.

“It’s likely that this is a relatively small, optical satellite that is going to have relatively low resolution,” he told the Reuters news agency. “But even a relatively low-resolution satellite is better than not having a satellite, which is their current situation.”

Such a satellite would be unlikely to provide the North with detailed intelligence on specific weapons systems in South Korea, for example, but it would still be useful for identifying things such as large troop movements, Van Diepen added.

To launch a more capable satellite, North Korea will probably need to develop a larger rocket, which it appears to be doing, he said.

After the first failed test, South Korea recovered some of the Chollima-1 wreckage – including, for the first time, parts of a satellite.

Ties to missiles?

The United Nations, the US and others condemned the launch as a violation of the 10 international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s ballistic missile programmes.

UN resolutions – passed with Russia’s support – also ban any scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea that could be used for advanced weaponry including ballistic missiles.

The Chollima-1 rocket seems to be a new design and analysts said it probably uses the dual-nozzle liquid-fuelled engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). That missile has its roots in designs dating from the Soviet Union.

However, although the space launch vehicle (SLV) probably uses the same engines as the ICBMs, there are design differences, Lewis said.

“North Korea is no longer shy about testing ICBMs, so no – this really is an SLV,” he said.

Pyongyang has said it plans to launch more satellites “in a short span of time”.

How have North Korea’s neighbours responded?

South Korea responded by suspending parts of the Comprehensive Military Agreement that was signed at a 2018 summit between Kim and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday afternoon.

“North Korea is clearly demonstrating that it has no will to abide by the [military agreement] designed to reduce military tension on the Korean peninsula and to build trust,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at an extraordinary cabinet meeting in Seoul.

South Korea said it would restore aerial surveillance and reconnaissance activities for “signs of North Korean provocations” along the border with further actions dependent on Pyongyang’s next move.

China, North Korea’s main ally, said it was in the interest of all parties to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

The rocket taking off in amid orange smoke and flame
The rocket carrying the Malligyong-1 spay satellite lifts off from the Sohae station on Tuesday night [KCNA via Reuters]

South Korea is also planning to its first spy satellite into orbit – on a SpaceX rocket – later this month.

CSIS noted that North Korea might have wanted to preempt that launch.

“This is not the first time North Korea has shown its competition with South Korea. North Korea’s first yet failed satellite launch came six days after South Korea successfully launched its homegrown Nuri rocket,” it said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies