North Korea Launches a Rocket in What May Be Its 3rd Attempt to Put a Spy Satellite into Orbit

Japan North Korea Missiles
A TV shows a J-Alert, or National Early Warning System, to Japanese residents Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, in Tokyo. (Eugene Hoshiko)/AP Photo)

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea on Tuesday made an apparent third attempt to place a military spy satellite into orbit, South Korea's military said, demonstrating its 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.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected the launch of what North Korea has described as a military spy satellite from the North's main space center in the northwest on Tuesday night. Japan said it also spotted a North Korean launch.

According to South Korean and Japanese assessments, a North Korean rocket carrying the purported spy satellite flew above international waters off the Korean Peninsula's west coast and then over the Japanese island of Okinawa toward the Pacific Ocean.

The Japanese prime minister's office briefly issued a J-Alert missile warning for Okinawa, urging residents to take shelter inside buildings or underground. South Korea's military said it maintains its readiness in close coordination with the United States and Japan.

"Even if North Korea calls it a satellite, the firing that uses ballistic missile technology is a clear violation to related United Nations Security Council resolutions," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. "It is also a serious threat that affects the safety of the people."

Japanese Vice Defense Minister Hiroyuki Miyazawa said it was not confirmed if the North Korean satellite had entered orbit.

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 traveled 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."

Russia and North Korea dismissed outside accusations of their alleged arms transfer deal as groundless. Such a deal would violate U.N. bans on 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 Sunday 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 last week. "Therefore, we will have to come up with reinforced countermeasures."

Since the start 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.

But they say that possessing a rocket that can place a satellite into orbit would mean North Korea can build a missile capable of carrying a warhead with a similar size of the satellite.

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.

Japan's coast guard said earlier Tuesday that North Korea had notified Tokyo of its plan to launch a satellite sometime between Wednesday and Nov. 30.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan subsequently urged North Korea to cancel the launch. They had earlier 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 into the ocean 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.

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.

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 assets 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 fresh demonstration of strength against North Korea.

North Korea views the temporary deployments of powerful U.S. military assets as major security threats.

Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.

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