North Korea made its first successful launch of a surveillance satellite on November 21, with the state run Korean Central News Agency reporting the following day that a rocket had “accurately put the reconnaissance satellite ‘Malligyong-1’ on its orbit.” The launch was intended as a response to “the space militarisation drive of the United States and its followers,” and was harshly criticised by Tokyo and Washington. Shortly after the launch North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un visited the country’s space centre and viewed the satellite’s operation, including viewing images received at 9:21 a.m. local time taken over Guam Island. The chairman at the time approved the space agency’s proposal to submit plans to the upcoming party plenum for the creation of aerospace surveillance of South Korea and the Pacific region, which could form the basis for a 2024 plan for further satellite launches based on the decision of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The country’s National Aerospace Development Administration has reported that the new reconnaissance satellite will start accomplishing assigned reconnaissance missions from December 1 “after 7-10 days of fine-tuning.”
North Korea’s development of a reconnaissance satellite has been speculated for well over a decade, and comes as the reach of the country’s ballistic and cruise missile arsenals have been extended considerably and their precision significantly improved. Satellites have the potential to serve as key force multipliers providing up to date intelligence on targets and potential threats. The viewing of images from Guam, which represents a priority target for potential Korean strikes, provides but one indication of the Malligyong-1’s purpose, with the territory being a key hub of American military operations in the region hosting vital air, naval and increasingly Marine facilities. The fact that the Malligyong-1 and the Chollima-1 carrier rocket that delivered it were apparently produced very quickly after two prior launches failed in May and August indicates that the North Korean space industry could carry out launches frequently to expand satellite surveillance capabilities in future. A second stage to the program is expected to involve development of communications satellites in particular to support special forces operations beyond the country’s borders.