by Claire Lee
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country has finished building its first military spy satellite and gave the green light for its launch, state media said Wednesday.
The report of its completion comes about a week after Pyongyang launched what it said was a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, marking a major breakthrough in its banned weapons programmes.
Analysts have said there is significant technological overlap between the development of ICBMs and space launch capabilities.
Kim gave instructions on Tuesday to “make sure that the military reconnaissance satellite No. 1 completed as of April will be launched at the planned date”, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
During a visit to North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration on Tuesday, he also called on staff to “firmly establish the satellite intelligence-gathering capability by deploying several reconnaissance satellites on different orbits in succession”.
State media images showed Kim touring the space agency with his daughter. The items he was inspecting, as well as charts and other wall displays in some of the images were blurred out.
The development of a military reconnaissance satellite was one of the key defence projects outlined by Kim in 2021.
On Tuesday, he said gaining the reconnaissance technology was a “primary task to be indispensably fulfilled” because of what he described as threats and aggression from the US and South Korea.
In December 2022, North Korea said it had carried out an “important final-stage test” for the development of a spy satellite, which it said it would complete by April this year.
At the time, experts in South Korea quickly raised doubts about the results, saying the quality of the black-and-white images released by North Korea – purportedly taken from a satellite – was poor.
Pyongyang has not provided a launch date, though on Tuesday, Kim said the satellite would be sent up “at the planned date”.
“It looks like the North will launch its ‘symbolic’ satellite for now, and upgrade it gradually,” An Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said.
“If China and Russia do not provide hi-tech support, it will be difficult to carry out spying with North Korea’s own technology.”
Even so, the latest announcement should be taken seriously, said Yang Moo-jin, the president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“Since North Korea’s reconnaissance satellites are an important factor in the event of a nuclear pre-emptive strike, they pose a significant threat to the South,” he said.
North Korea declared itself an “irreversible” nuclear power last year, effectively ending the possibility of denuclearisation talks.
Washington and Seoul have ramped up defence co-operation in response, staging joint military exercises with advanced stealth jets and high-profile US strategic assets.
North Korea views such exercises as rehearsals for invasion and described them last week as “frantic” drills “simulating an all-out war against” Pyongyang.