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Japan boosts surveillance capabilities in response to North Korea’s spy satellite launch

Marc Jacob Prosser

North Korea’s recent deployment of a spy satellite has stirred geopolitical tensions and raised security concerns for Japan and its partners, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida describing the launch “as a clear violation of the relevant United Nations resolutions.”

In the wake of Pyongyang’s launch, Japan sent a surveillance satellite into orbit in mid-January 2024. Tokyo also is engaging in defense exercises with regional partners and in collaborative efforts to counter North Korea’s threats.

A rocket carrying a Japanese surveillance satellite launches from Tanegashima Space Center in January 2024.

North Korea’s spy satellite launch in November 2023 followed two failed attempts and coincided with heightened rhetoric from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim has called on his isolated country to expand its military capabilities, including satellites, nuclear weapons and autonomous combat equipment.

“While the capabilities of the North Korean spy satellites are likely modest, they are part of a broader strategy to consolidate and enhance ICBM [intercontinental ballistic] missile capabilities,” Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international studies at Tokyo’s International Christian University, told FORUM. “The spy satellite launch vehicles, navigation capabilities and technology are all important aspects of ICBM technologies.”

Pyongyang’s spy satellite efforts reflect its willingness to operationalize its missile capabilities in war settings, according to Hirohito Ogi, a senior research fellow at the Asia Pacific Initiative and the Institute of Geoeconomics at the International House of Japan, a Tokyo-based think tank.

“Although we do not know to what extent North Korea can really operate the satellite, we need to stay vigilant on the related capability in the context of its nuclear warfighting threats,” he told FORUM.

South Korean intelligence officials have said that Russia likely is assisting North Korea’s spy satellite program, which is destabilizing the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Indo-Pacific partners including Japan, South Korea and the United States say Pyongyang is seeking military technologies from Moscow in return for supplying conventional weapons for Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.

Japan’s response includes expanding response and surveillance capabilities, including the recent launch of the Information-Gathering Satellite Optical 8 from Tanegashima Space Center. That month, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. conducted a naval drill, which included the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, focused on responding to North Korean missile threats. The nations also have deployed a real-time information-sharing system to monitor Pyongyang’s missile activities.

Indeed, North Korea’s spy satellite launch may backfire, retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Maj. Gen. Nozomu Yoshitomi told FORUM. The satellite’s capabilities likely are inferior or, at best, similar to those of commercial surveillance satellites. Since North Korea can already buy surveillance satellite images from the likes of Russia, its satellite will be of limited benefit.

“In this way, North Korea’s military actions are useful to strengthen trilateral military cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea, including additional cooperative actions on information sharing, missile defense and the like,” said Yoshitomi, a professor at Nihon University’s College of Risk Management.

The further strengthening of cooperation was underscored in December 2023 when the national security advisors of Japan, South Korea and the U.S. met in Seoul and announced initiatives to counter North Korea’s ballistic missile and space programs, as well as its cybercrime and cryptocurrency money laundering.

Marc Jacob Prosser is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Tokyo.

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