Global CommonsNortheast AsiaWeapons Proliferation

South Korea bolsters defense satellite capabilities, deterrence against North

Felix Kim

South Korea is enhancing its military communications capabilities and monitoring of the North Korean regime’s nefarious activities with a recent agreement to enable the use of low Earth orbit (LEO) civilian communications satellites for military purposes and the launch of Seoul’s first domestically developed surveillance satellite.

The new capabilities, which included assistance from the United States, promise to strengthen the nation’s defense and deterrence against Pyongyang, as well as to create opportunities for defense cooperation with regional partners, experts say.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying South Korea’s first domestically developed military reconnaissance satellite launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on December 1, 2023. A SpaceX livestream shows the rocket’s cargo compartment separate and its core stage booster return to Earth.

A U.S.-made SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried the military surveillance satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, in early December 2023.

South Korea, formally known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), historically has relied on U.S. commercial and military assets for high-resolution ground images of North Korea but wants to establish its own military satellite network to gather intelligence, according to South Korea’s government-affiliated Yonhap News Agency.

Pyongyang continues to develop its weapons programs, including a spate of ballistic missile launches, in violation of United Nations Security Council sanctions. The isolated regime also has threatened to resume nuclear weapons tests, also in violation of U.N. prohibitions.

South Korea’s new surveillance satellite uses electro-optical and infrared sensors, Yonhap reported. Four satellites to be launched by 2025 will employ cloud-penetrating synthetic aperture radar.

“The ROK military has been able to draw upon U.S. satellites in many cases. But I think they’ve concluded that they want their own self-reliance,” Dr. Bruce Bennett, a Rand Corp. expert on Northeast Asian military issues, told FORUM.

Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration, meanwhile, will collaborate with Hanwha Systems, a South Korean defense company, to use a network of civilian LEO satellites “to conduct integrated operations with various combat platforms in an expanded operational area.” The network will “provide uninterrupted communication by resolving problems such as communication disconnection in mountainous areas that may occur when operating a ground-based communication system,” South Korea’s National Defense Ministry said in late November 2023.

South Korea’s satellite enhancements come on the heels of North Korea’s launch of a spy satellite in late November. While Pyongyang claimed the launch was a success, experts question the extent of the threat posed by the satellite, given its limited monitoring capacity.

“If it is working properly, it’s still only seeing areas in South Korea periodically,” Bennett said. “You’re not going to follow somebody preparing to go to war if you’re only seeing an area for 10 minutes once or twice a day. So, it’s not giving North Korea the warning and reconnaissance kind of capability the North would like.”

South Korea’s planned constellation of reconnaissance satellites will act as an eye for its Kill Chain preemptive strike system, allowing early identification and warning of a potential North Korean nuclear or missile attack.

An expanded proprietary network of defense satellites bodes well for South Korea’s role as a regional defense partner, Bennett said.

“The agreement earlier this year by the leaders of the U.S., South Korea and Japan to share missile warning information presents a good opportunity for cooperation,” he said. “The more satellites and radars there are monitoring a specific threat from different angles, the more timely and accurate the intelligence data is.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button