Is North Korea’s spy satellite causing a major crisis for the US?

Klingner, a former intelligence officer, believes Washington must confront the growing military threat by strengthening security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo.

7 mins read
Photo released by North Korea of the launch of the spy satellite on Tuesday. (AP)

North Korea’s success in launching its first spy satellite after two failed tests dramatically changes the power equation between Pyongyang on the one hand and Washington, Seoul and Tokyo on the other.

In recent years, North Korea has developed an arsenal of long-range missiles capable of reaching US territory and, of course, South Korea and Japan. But it lacked the necessary capabilities to accurately detect, track and strike its targets in the three countries. According to American strategic analyst Boris Klingner, an expert on Korea and Japan issues at the US-based Center for Asian Studies at The Heritage Foundation, the satellite that North Korea put into orbit around the Earth a few days ago could provide it with these capabilities.

North Korea announced that its satellite was capable of surveying US military bases on the island of Guam and promised to launch more spy and reconnaissance satellites “in a short period of time”.

South Korea responded by suspending the implementation of some provisions of a military agreement aimed at preventing armed conflict between the two neighbors.

On November 21, Pyongyang carried out its third attempt to launch the military spy satellite Malygyong-1 using the Chollima-1 space rocket, following two tests last May and August. In January 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced his regime’s intention to develop a spy satellite. Last April, Kim emphasized the importance of having several spy satellites in different orbits to provide live and direct information on enemies’ military scenarios and movements.

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The North Korean leader and his daughter with scientists who helped launch the spy satellite. (AFP)

From 1996 to 2001, Klingner was Deputy Director of the Korea Division of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), responsible for analyzing political, military, economic and presidential information on North Korea and presenting it to the US President and senior officials in Washington. “The irony is that North Korea’s satellite launch comes on the same day that North Korea criticized both the United States and South Korea for ‘recklessly’ militarizing space and described Seoul’s intention to launch a spy satellite as ‘an extremely dangerous military provocation,'” Klingner said in an analysis published by the American magazine The National Interest, as quoted by DPA.

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It is possible that Russia, which has been waging a war in Ukraine since last February, has provided North Korea with the technology to develop the satellite launch capability in exchange for a massive shipment of North Korean ammunition. A South Korean military official said Russia sent North Korea 80 tons of liquid-fueled rocket engines ahead of the Russia-North Korea summit last September. Russian engineers also traveled to North Korea after the summit.

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Parts of the North Korean satellite were recovered from the sea after the first failed attempt last June. (AP)

As previously reported, Seoul responded to Pyongyang’s satellite launch by suspending compliance with some provisions of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement. This agreement was welcomed by then South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a major step towards improving relations with Pyongyang.

Since then, the government of current President Yoon Suk Yeol has announced that Pyongyang has repeatedly violated the agreement. It criticized Seoul’s provisions reducing the activities of its allies in reconnaissance and military exercises.

The government also announced its intention to suspend Articles 1 and 3 of the agreement until aerial reconnaissance operations along the demilitarized zone between the two parts of the Korean Peninsula resume.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to a missile assembly depot in Russia on September 13, 2023. (AP)

Although any ballistic missile launch by North Korea would constitute a violation of a number of United Nations (UN) resolutions, the UN Security Council is not expected to pass any resolution against the satellite launch due to the possible veto of both Russia and China. The US should therefore intensify its efforts to enforce American and international sanctions against Pyongyang. It should work systematically with the international community to impose sanctions on North Korea, as well as Russia and China, for violating UN resolutions and facilitating Pyongyang’s violations.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepares to examine satellite images during a visit to the General Control Center in Pyongyang. (AFP)

Klingner encourages Washington to strengthen security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, urging them to improve bilateral cooperation, believing they must confront the growing North Korean military threat. Last year, the US resumed major military exercises with South Korea and the deployment of its forces in the region. The trio of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo also conducted military exercises. These measures enhance the three countries’ defense and deterrence capabilities in the face of the North Korean threat.

Finally, the historic trilateral summit between the leaders of the US, Japan and South Korea at Camp David last August paved the way for greater military, economic and technological cooperation under US leadership to confront common security threats in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, the three leaders will need to implement the security agreements they have reached, as well as allocate more resources to counter the development of military capabilities by China and North Korea, which have been highlighted by recent satellite launches.

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