North Korea reported a failed attempt to place its first espionage satellite into orbit on Wednesday, a significant setback to leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to enhance his military prowess amidst prolonged security tensions with South Korea and the United States.
The state media disclosed that the rocket carrying the satellite crashed into the sea off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula after losing thrust post the separation of its first and second stages. The cause of the failure is under investigation.
The rocket was launched early in the morning from the Tongchang-ri region, the main space launch center in North Korea, as confirmed by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The South Korean military reported an unusual flight path of the rocket before it crashed into the sea. In response, it increased its military readiness in close collaboration with the United States. Japanese authorities also stated that no object seemed to have reached space.
The launch caused brief evacuation orders in South Korea and Japan. Seoul issued public alerts instructing residents to prepare for evacuation, although no significant disruption or damage was reported. Similarly, Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, suspected to be in the rocket’s path, issued evacuation orders which were later lifted.
A high-ranking North Korean official had previously claimed that the country required a space-based reconnaissance system to counter escalating threats from South Korea and the U.S.
The U.S. condemned the launch, stating that it involved ballistic missile technology, a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. U.S. President Joe Biden and his national security team are currently assessing the situation.
Whether a North Korean spy satellite would significantly enhance its defenses is unclear. Though the satellite appeared rudimentary, it might be capable of detecting large scale troop movements and significant targets such as warships and warplanes.
Commercial satellite imagery showed active construction activities at the main rocket launch center in North Korea, suggesting plans for more satellite launches. North Korean officials have hinted at testing “various reconnaissance means” designed to monitor and respond to U.S. and its allies’ activities.
According to an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, North Korea could potentially establish a near real-time space-based surveillance system over the Korean Peninsula with three to five spy satellites.
Leader Kim Jong Un has emphasized the strategic value of a spy satellite in North Korea’s standoff with the U.S. and South Korea. Besides, Kim has pledged to develop various advanced weapon systems including a multi-warhead missile, a nuclear submarine, a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile, and a hypersonic missile.
In the absence of denuclearization talks with the U.S. since early 2019, Kim has focused on expanding his nuclear and missile arsenals. Since the beginning of 2022, North Korea has conducted over 100 missile tests, including nuclear-capable weapons targeting the U.S. mainland, South Korea, and Japan.
North Korea defends its testing activities as measures to counter increased military drills by Washington and Seoul. However, the U.S. and South Korea maintain that their drills are defensive in nature and have been strengthened to handle North Korea’s growing nuclear threats.
Past satellite launches by North Korea have resulted in U.N. imposed sanctions. While attempts to tighten sanctions over recent ballistic missile tests were blocked by China and Russia, both South Korea and Japan have warned that such activities disrupt regional peace.