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Two Koreas engage in military space race over peninsula

South Korea launched a surveillance satellite, the vehicle put into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket operated by the private US operator SpaceX

South Korea launched a surveillance satellite, the vehicle put into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket operated by the private US operator SpaceX

As inter-Korean military rivalries intensify and move into new realms, both Seoul and Pyongyang are increasingly looking to exploit the possibilities afforded by outer space — both to increase their preparedness for a conflict on the peninsula and to boost their standing as technologically advanced nations.

In mid-November, Kim Jong Un declared that his nation had entered a "new era of space power" after the successful launch of the Malligyong-1, North Korea's first domestically developed spy satellite.

Within hours of the launch — and in defiance of United Nations resolutions on the North's development of missiles or rockets — Kim claimed he had looked at images from the new satellite showing military bases in the US, Japan and South Korea. The North has not released any images from the satellite, meaning it is impossible to determine the capability of the vehicle's optics, although analysts have expressed skepticism.

Not to be outdone, South Korea launched its first surveillance satellite in late 2023, the vehicle put into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX, a private US aerospace firm, operates. Seoul is also developing its own launch vehicles and has announced ambitious plans to put satellites into orbit and even contribute to the exploration of the moon.

On January 11, the Ministry of Science in Seoul announced that it would set up a whole space agency in May and intended to capture 10% of the global spaceflight market by 2045. The creation of the Korea AeroSpace Administration (KASA) was one of President Yoon Suk-yeol's campaign promises, with the hope that the sector would become a vital component of the national economy.

Solid-fuel IRBM launch

Three days after South Korea's achievement, North Korea launched a solid fuel-propelled intermediate-range ballistic missile, employing many of the technologies that are also used in rockets designed to place satellites into orbit.

In a speech to the nation in December, Kim said he intends to launch at least three more spy satellites this year to enhance the North's military capabilities. Experts believe that his space engineers are benefiting from Russia sharing technology and know-how in return for North Korean artillery rounds for the war in Ukraine.

"Currently, South Korea's National Intelligence Service believes that Russia has assisted North Korea in the launch and orbital entry of its military satellites," said Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor specializing in politics and technology policy at Chungnam National University.

Cooperation in space-related activities was underlined when Kim traveled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region in September.

"It is anticipated that competition in space technology will intensify in the future," Lee told DW. "North Korea will likely continue to develop and launch more satellites to enhance its nuclear threats, while South Korea will do the same to strengthen its deterrence capabilities in response."

Even though Seoul's intelligence agencies have dismissed the ability of the North's satellites to gather information, Lee said it is likely that Pyongyang's scientists will continue to improve on their capabilities, and the South needs to be ready to meet the challenge of developments in space.

Seoul's plan for 130 satellites

That process is already underway, with Seoul planning a network of as many as 130 satellites in low-earth orbit by early next decade as part of a surveillance and military communications network. The system is a critical component of the South's "kill-chain" capability, part of which is designed to target North Korean leaders in the event of an attack on the South.

In contrast to the North's space policy, which is focused narrowly on military applications, the South is looking to explore and exploit the heavens, said Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

"These are two very different models of development, with the North state-led and centrally planned while the South is looking for international partnerships and public-private ventures for satellite launches and, ultimately, space exploration," he said.

The North's space programs are dogged by shortages of funding, an inability to access the latest technologies and the refusal of most of the other space-going nations to cooperate with Pyongyang, Pinkston said. However, he agreed that there is evidence that the North is getting some assistance from Russia and that its hackers have probably been able to access useful space technology elsewhere.

And while the information provided by spy and communication satellites would be critical to North Korea coordinating any attack against another country, he said, the price of developing and launching such craft will have had a severe impact on other elements of the national economy.

"It is important to remember that the cost of these systems is very high for North Korea, considering the size of their overall economy, and the resources they pour into satellites and space means it can't be spent elsewhere," he said.

'Counter-space response'

"Also, there will inevitably be a counter-space response," he pointed out. "The North's adversaries have greater capabilities to respond and react through anti-satellite weapons that can jam these satellites or even destroy them, and I'm sure that the US and South Korea have been working on counter-capabilities that will be able to disable a North Korean satellite, either temporarily or permanently, should the need arise."

Given the vulnerabilities of the North's space program, Professor Lee said one of the most significant benefits may be the propaganda value to its domestic audience and the burnishing of its image as a technologically developed nation.

"The launch of reconnaissance satellites by North Korea can certainly be seen as a symbol of its status as an advanced nation," she said, adding that the North has even surpassed the South by being able to launch its own vehicles recently while its ideological rival relied on a private US company.

"Even though it may not surpass South Korea in other industrial areas, leading in the space sector is undoubtedly a point of pride for North Korea," she said. "Therefore, such advancements could be an important means for North Korea to strengthen its position and influence on the international stage."

Edited by: John Silk