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Questions, concerns linger as North Korea plans third spy satellite launch


After two failed attempts, North Korea reportedly will try again to launch a military spy satellite in October 2023, a prospect that raises security concerns in Japan and South Korea amid increased skepticism about the device’s potential effectiveness.

The first Chollima-1 rocket, carrying a Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite, crashed into the Yellow Sea on May 31, 2023. A second attempt also failed with rocket debris falling into the Yellow and East China seas and the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines on August 23, Japan’s Defense Ministry reported. Both rockets broke apart as they progressed through separation stages on unsuccessful missions to place the satellites in orbit.

South Korea’s military recovered debris from the first rocket and satellite. It determined the satellite’s technology “was not yet sophisticated enough to fulfill reconnaissance objectives, even if it had been launched successfully,” the SpaceNews website reported in late August. Civilian experts told National Public Radio the spy satellites likely could detect only large targets such as ships and planes. A search for the second rocket was underway, United States-based SpaceNews reported.

Japan briefly issued a warning for islands in the Okinawa prefecture following the second launch and both attempts drew international criticism. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the rocket firings, noting they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea from using ballistic missile technology. He called for North Korea to cease such acts and resume talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and ensure a sustainable peace.

Japan protested the second launch “in the strongest possible terms” and South Korea also deemed it a violation of Security Council resolutions, The New York Times newspaper reported.

Despite such objections, North Korea has said it will place a fleet of satellites in orbit to monitor South Korean and U.S. military activities in the region and to bolster its nuclear weapons capabilities, the newspaper stated. Pyongyang will investigate the failed missions, make changes if necessary and proceed with the next launch, The Diplomat magazine reported in late August, citing a comment by North Korea’s state-run news agency.

The second failed launch came days after the landmark trilateral summit at the U.S. presidential retreat Camp David, Maryland, at which Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed North Korea’s aggressive behavior, among other topics. Senior Japanese, South Korean and U.S. diplomats said the spy satellite launches and other provocations will strengthen Seoul-Tokyo-Washington cooperation, The Associated Press reported in late August. South Korea shared surveillance information with its two partners after the second launch, and the three nations imposed additional sanctions on North Korea such as freezing assets of individuals and organizations, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported in early September.

Pyongyang’s spy satellite and missile launches, including a record number of missile tests in 2022, come as the isolated nation struggles with chronic food shortages. North Korea is among the world’s poorest nations and faces its worst food insecurity crisis since widespread famine in the 1990s, the Stimson Center’s 38 North website reported in mid-January 2023. Yet the nation spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product on its military. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said the expenditure is essential to the nation’s survival. “One can live without candy, but one cannot live without bullets,” he once said, 38 North reported.

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