DPRK Military Satellites

For years, going back to 1989, the DPRK was and is known to be working on dual purpose civil and primarily military Communications satellites as well as ERTS and Weather satellites. So far the record is three failed satellite launches involving several types of communications satellites.

The North Korean communication satellite industry is new with little identified about it publicly. Several years ago it was suggested that North Korea intended to launch a communications satellite in addition to a weather satellite and ERTS earth resources satellite. The development of these systems and technology was likely a product of both internal research and development and international cooperation, with Iran among others.

The fact that North Korea was committed as of 2009 to this type of satellite development rather than manned space flight or space research suggested to observers that the space program was a cover for missile development for other purposes, or other dual civilian-military purposes. A desire for complete autonomy was also suggested. Regional allies and friendly neighbors such as the Russians and Chinese could easily have provided communications, weather and ERTS satellite technology or services. In a country with strictly rationed power, communications were not seen as a major priority for the population at large.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the launch of a military spy satellite. This was reported 19 April 2023 by their state-led Korean Central News Agency after he paid a visit to the National Space Development Agency. Alongside some high-ranking officials in the regime's reconnaissance department, Kim took a look at what's reported to be the finished satellite device-the first of its kind. From the released photo by KCNA, the satellite appears to be of a hexagonal shape with four solar panels on top. Experts are estimating the device to weigh about 200 to 300 kilograms.

Kim Jong-un urged the launch to happen as scheduled. Leading experts in North Korean studies said that this could be within this month. "It appears that Kim Jong-un has determined their technological readiness to deploy a spy satellite and may launch it before the Seoul-Washington summit to get the biggest political response out of it."

The expert also said this satellite should also be seen as a threat to South Korea. A spy satellite would enable the North to gather meaningful intel on South Korea's defenses-making it that much easier for North Korea to strike first. The last time North Korea attempted to launch a rocket into space was seven years ago--trying to put an earth observation satellite, named the Kwangmyongsong-4, into orbit. Experts project that this new satellite would be the next step up from their last satellite and could be dubbed the Kwangmyongsong-5.

Launching its first reconnaissance satellite is key to North Korea's five-year military advancement plan rolled out in 2021, with the aim of having it ready by April 2023. Sending a satellite into orbit requires a long-range space rocket. While space development is an open race for many countries this is not the case for North Korea. Because the required rocket involves long-range missile technology and the regime is banned from using it under UN Security Council resolutions regardless of the purpose.

Despite warnings from the international community, North Korea has been accelerating its militarization of space. Earlier in May 2023, leader Kim Jong-un inspected the satellite, and gave the "go-ahead" for quote "future action plan." Affecting that timing --the weather factors --to avoid seasonal monsoon rains or typhoons.

North Korea had a history of launching long-range ballistic missiles after claiming it would send up a satellite. Since 1998, North Korea attempted six satellite launches. Just two entered orbit only to fail to communicate with the ground.

  1. The first time was in April 2009 when it launched a missile that traveled more than 3,000 kilometers, passing over northeastern Japan. The projectile is believed to have fallen into the Pacific Ocean.
  2. In April 2012, North Korea made the same claim, then launched a rocket that exploded in mid-air shortly after lift-off. Pyongyang had designated points in the Yellow Sea and Pacific Ocean as zones for possible falling objects. That path would have taken a missile past the Sakishima Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. North Korea admitted that the launch was a failure.
  3. It tried again in December of the same year, with the same zones being designated for possible falling objects. This time a missile is believed to have flown over an area near the Sakishima Islands.
  4. And in February 2016, North Korea once more announced that it would launch a satellite. It then fired what experts say was a missile that followed a similar route to the one just over three years earlier.

Japan's Defense Ministry said the first and second missiles were either Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missiles or derivatives. It says the third and fourth were believed to be the advanced versions of the Taepodong-2. The ministry also says the third and fourth launches saw some sort of object put into orbit around the Earth. But ministry sources said they have not confirmed any regular communication between those objects and the ground. The ministry says none of the objects are believed to be functioning as satellites. It says the launch was aimed at improving long-range ballistic missile technology.

In July 2017, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of more than 5,500 kilometers for the first time. Since then, North Korea had fired missiles numerous times. Experts say 13 of the launches either were or may have been of ICBMs.

Some Japanese Defense Ministry officials suggested that North Korea may actually launch a satellite this time. Rockets for launching satellites and ballistic missiles have the same basic structure. The only difference is the object at the tip that determines their purpose. A senior official of Japan's Defense Ministry says "North Korea used to improve its missile technology using satellite launches as cover, but it has recently been firing missiles without that pretext. If the country's missile technology has improved sufficiently, it may really be trying to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit around the Earth this time." Another senior Defense Ministry official said North Korea stated two years ago that its defense program included a goal of possessing military reconnaissance satellites. The official said it is believed that North Korea was moving closer to the operation of satellites rather than improving missile technology.

The satellite seemed to be capable of creating only low resolution images which would be difficult to interpret in the case of rain or darkness. The regime also lacks expertise and infrastructure to analyze the received data. Plus, more than one satellite is needed to create a comprehensive image of a target. That said, experts say this launch could pave the way for more to come at which point the North could expand its data analysis and advance the capability of its satellites.

Space based remote sensing has evolved over the past 30+ years to where it has become common to see and use the imagery generated by satellites. Technical achievements in the instrumentation on board these satellites have trended toward higher and more spectrally diverse resolution for monitoring features on an ever smaller scale. This has been accomplished by the use of digital image sensors (such as Charged Coupled Devices or CCDs) that are increasingly pixelated and are coupled to optics systems of increasing cost and complexity.

The desire to capture features on a small spatial scale requires the use of a stable platform (such as a GEO satellite) that have complex automated spacecraft attitude control systems in order to reduce pixel blur that occurs when the sensor platform moves while capturing the image. There has been a lot of effort in developing ultra-stable spacecraft platforms that employ sophisticated 3 axis attitude control systems.

Solid-state detectors such as charge coupled devices (CCD) or CMOS Active Pixel Sensors are widely used in a variety of imaging applications. Typically, the sampling elements (detectors associated with unit cells) are arranged in rows and columns to convert the electromagnetic radiation from a scene into charges that are converted into electrical signals. A linear array consists of only one row of detectors (one dimensional, 1D) while an area array consists of an array of detectors with multiple rows and columns (two dimensional, 2D).

A well-known technique in satellite or aircraft imaging applications is push-broom imaging, wherein a camera images the ground scene. In such applications, a 1D array can be used to generate 2D images by repeatedly exposing and integrating on the single row of pixels while moving the detector in a direction orthogonal to the long dimension of the array. The direction of the motion is called “in-scan”, while the direction orthogonal to this motion direction is called “cross-scan”.

The costs associated with building a small satellite is lower by a factor often from what is was in the early 1990s.

KCNA news agency quoted Kim Yo-jong, who is the sister of the country's leader Kim Jong-un, as saying that the United States and its allies are afraid of the presence of intelligence assets in Pyongyang. "Therefore, we recognize the need to make further efforts to develop intelligence capabilities," said Kim Yo-jong, adding that the DPRK authorities will make efforts to strengthen the "war deterrence force." We can talk about the development of new satellites. At the same time, the head of the department of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea rejected criticism of the DPRK after an unsuccessful attempt to launch a satellite. "If we are condemned for launching a satellite, then the United States and all countries that have already launched thousands of satellites should also be condemned," she said.


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