Kim Jong Un celebrated a “new era of space power” with scientists and his family, state media said Friday, after the North successfully put a military spy satellite into orbit. During a visit to the National Aerospace Technology Administration, accompanied by his daughter Ju Ae, Kim “praised the engineers and scientists” who helped with Tuesday’s launch of the “Malligyong-1,” KCNA reported. He called it “an eye-opening event of deploying our ‘ space guard’ constantly grasping the military intention and moves of hostile forces.”
Pyongyang’s satellite-launching capabilities have been long a source of concern, with many fearing the North could use its dual-use technology to develop ballistic missiles. Seoul and Tokyo say the satellite has likely entered an operational orbit, but additional analysis will be needed to confirm its status. Analysts also remain still determining how useful the information the satellite will provide since it is unclear how many satellites Pyongyang plans to keep in orbit at once or how powerful their sensors will be.
The North has attempted seven times to deploy a reconnaissance satellite over the past 25 years, with five missions crashing into the sea and two others putting objects in space but with questionable operating status. This was its third attempt at securing a military eye in the sky. It came just weeks after Kim met Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Russian cosmodrome and pledged his country’s full support for building more satellites.
Analysts also note that Pyongyang has been able to bypass sanctions on its nuclear and rocket programs by receiving technical assistance from Russia, China, and other allies. They suggest that Pyongyang is now looking to expand its satellites by using larger rockets that can hold more payloads, allowing it to carry heavier cargo into orbit.
During Tuesday’s launch, the North claimed that its satellite had already captured images of US military bases in Guam and described it as a full-fledged exercise of the “right to self-defense.”
While analysts have applauded North Korea for its achievements in space, they say how much value the satellite will provide remains to be seen. They expect the North to add to its fleet of Earth observation satellites over time and aim for a more resilient constellation that would allow it to gather more data simultaneously along the borders with South Korea. “Even a satellite with rudimentary capabilities can make a pretty big difference in North Korea’s situational awareness,” says Tianran Xu, who focuses on Northeast Asia security and missile systems at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.
The White House has condemned the launch, but it is not planning to impose any fresh sanctions on the North. That is mainly due to the dispute between the United States and Russia over a new resolution to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test and missile launch. Moscow and Beijing have pushed to block the resolution, which has not yet received a majority vote in the Security Council.