North Korea on Tuesday made an apparent third attempt to place a military spy satellite into orbit, South Korea's military said. The launch marks the latest demonstration of North Korea's determination to build a space-based surveillance system during protracted tensions with the United States.
It wasn’t immediately known whether the launch was successful. But it is certain to invite strong condemnation from the United States and its partners because the U.N. bans North Korea from conducting satellite launches, calling them covers for tests of missile technology.
No further details were immediately available from Seoul, but Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office initially issued a J-Alert missile warning for Okinawa late Tuesday, saying North Korea fired a possible missile. It urged residents to take shelter inside buildings or underground. Within 10 minutes, the office said on X, formerly Twitter, that the missile had passed into the Pacific Ocean, saying it was lifting the earlier advisory.
The office, however, urged residents to stay away from any suspicious objects and to report anything to police or fire departments.
Japan’s Defense Ministry also announced that North Korea had fired a possible ballistic missile late Tuesday, but offered no other details.
A spy satellite is among the key military assets coveted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who wants to modernize his weapons systems to cope with what he calls escalating U.S. threats. North Korea attempted to launch a spy satellite twice earlier this year, but both launches ended in failure due to technical issues.
North Korea had vowed a third launch would take place sometime in October. But it didn’t follow through with that launch plan without giving any reason. South Korean officials have said the delay occurred likely because North Korea was receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite launch program.
North Korea and Russia, both U.S. adversaries that are increasingly isolated globally, have been pushing hard to expand their relationships in recent months. In September, Kim travelled to Russia’s Far East to meet President Vladimir Putin and visit key military sites, touching off intense speculation of a weapons deal between the two nations.
The alleged deal involves North Korea supplying conventional arms to refill Russia’s ammunition stock drained in its war with Ukraine. In return, foreign governments and experts say that North Korea seeks Russian help in enhancing its nuclear and other military programs. During Kim’s Russia visit, Putin told state media that his country would help North Korea build satellites, saying Kim “shows keen interest in rocket technology.”
Both Russia and North Korea dismissed outside accusations of their alleged arms transfer deal as groundless. Such a deal would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit any weapons trading involving North Korea.
The White House said in October that North Korea had delivered more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia. But South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik said in a media interview this week that North Korea had sent about 3,000 containers to Russia.
Kim previously said North Korea needed spy satellites to better monitor South Korean and U.S. activities and enhance the effective use of its nuclear missiles. But South Korea has said a North Korean spy launch program also involves its efforts to manufacture more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“If North Korea succeeds in launching the military reconnaissance satellite, it would signify that North Korea’s ICBM capabilities have been taken to a higher level,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in responses to questions from The Associated Press earlier in November. “Therefore, we will have to come up with reinforced countermeasures.”
Since the opening of 2022, North Korea carried out about 100 missile tests in a bid to establish a reliable arsenal of nuclear weapons targeting the U.S. and its allies. Many foreign experts say North Korea has some last remaining technologies to master to acquire functioning nuclear-armed missiles. They say placing a spy satellite into orbit would mean North Korea has a rocket that can carry a similar size of nuclear warhead.
South Korea’s military recently suggested it could suspend a 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce tensions and resume front-line aerial surveillance and firing exercises, if the North went ahead with its launch. Critics of Yoon said the suspension of the 2018 deal would give North Korea a pretext to launch another provocation and further inflame animosities.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have earlier urged North Korea to cancel the launch. They had condemned North Korea’s two previous satellite launches as violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But permanent council members Russia and China have stymied any Security Council response.
In June, Kim’s sister and senior ruling party official, Kim Yo Jong, called the U.N. Security Council “a political appendage” of the United States. She slammed the U.N. council for allegedly being “discriminative and rude,” saying it only takes issue with the North’s satellite launches while thousands of satellites launched by other countries are already operating.
In the two previous launches in May and August, North Korea used its new Chollima-1 rocket to carry the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite.
In the first attempt, the North Korean rocket carrying the satellite crashed off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast soon after liftoff. North Korean authorities said the rocket lost thrust after the separation of its first and second stages. After the second launch failure, North Korea said there was an error in the emergency blasting system during the third-stage flight.
South Korea retrieved debris from the first launch and called the satellite too crude to perform military reconnaissance. Shin, the South Korean defense minister, still said Sunday that the operation of a normal spy satellite would drastically improve the North’s capacity to monitor its rivals and make precision missile strikes.
Some civilian experts said North Korea’s Malligyong-1 satellite is likely capable only of detecting big targets like warships or planes. But by operating several such satellites, North Korea could still observe South Korea at all times, they said. In April, Kim Jong Un said North Korea must launch several satellites.
Worries about Kim’s nuclear ambitions have deepened since North Korea passed a law last year authorizing the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. Besides spy satellites, Kim is eager to introduce other high-tech weapons such as more mobile ICBMs, nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic weapons and multi-warhead missiles. Observers say Kim would ultimately want to use an enlarged weapons arsenal to wrest greater U.S. concessions like sanctions relief when diplomacy resumes.
In response, the U.S. and South Korea have been expanding their regular military exercises that sometimes included U.S. strategic weapons such as long-range bombers, a nuclear-armed submarine and aircraft carriers. On Tuesday, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group arrived at a South Korean port in a demonstration of strength against North Korea.
North Korea describes as major security threats U. S.-South Korean joint drills and the deployment of powerful U.S. military assets.
After repeated failures, North Korea placed Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, but experts say neither transmitted imagery back to North Korea. The U.N. issued sanctions over those launches.