North Korea’s first satellite inserted into space was launched on December 12, 2012. However, the satellite failed to stabilize itself and began tumbling and malfunctioning days after achieving orbit, thus becoming defunct. Subsequently, another satellite was lifted into orbit on February 7, 2016, and this time it appeared to fly in a stable orbit, giving it the potential of achieving operational status. However, this was not confirmed as there was no independent proof that the satellite had transmitted any data.
North Korea’s third satellite to successfully achieve orbit, was a military reconnaissance satellite launched on November 21, 2023 after two failed attempts in May and August. While it is unknown whether this satellite will settle into and maintain a stable orbit, or how sophisticated its cameras are, the fact remains that this development should worry the United States, along with its allies, South Korea and Japan.
Irrespective of whether Pyongyang now has access to space-based intelligence about U.S., South Korean, or Japanese military force deployments, the fact remains that each successful rocket launch allows North Korea scientists to refine the technology for building reliable missiles of all ranges including medium-range ones threatening South Korea and Japan, intermediate-range missiles targeting Guam, and most disconcertingly, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the mainland United States. This is because ICBMs and satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) are technologically similar.
If the Korean People’s Army (KPA) can reinforce or assure its threat to strike regional American bases in East Asia and/or devastate U.S. soil, this might jeopardize the extended deterrence of the U.S. nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and Japan.
Why Strategic Concern Is Warranted
Setting aside the uninterrupted pace of missile testing, which will lead directly to qualitative development of North Korea’s missile arsenal, policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo arguably need to confront the reality that global geopolitical circumstances have drastically eroded the efficacy of U.N. sanctions introduced from 2016-2017 in response to the North’s nuclear and missile testing.
Washington and Beijing remain locked in an adversarial relationship, with the government of Xi Jinping having little enthusiasm to help the Biden administration crack down on the Kim regime. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has every reason to covertly support Kim Jong Un’s missile and space ambitions, since Washington has been instrumental in foiling Moscow’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine by supplying Kyiv with armaments, vital spare parts, military training, and even tactical advice. Consequently, the constraining effect on military technology proliferation from sanctions has been fading, allowing Kim to advance his nuclear, space and military ambitions.
Notwithstanding weakening restrictions on the North, it is also obvious that the Kim dynasty is hell bent on military development with nuclear warheads, missiles, and related capabilities as the pièce de resistance. Unlike most other states, which are essentially answerable to their populations in terms of basic welfare provision, North Korea is driven by a state-approved “military first” doctrine called “Songun,” which allows complete priority of military spending to the detriment of all other essential spending like healthcare, food subsidies and education, among other legitimate needs. Moreover, as power is maintained through pervasive social monitoring and the liberal application of brutality, the Kim regime will continue to inexorably devote all desired resources to selected missile, nuclear, space, or military purposes without any pushback or popular oversight by ordinary citizens.
Dealing with a Future Hostile Satellite Network
Despite reports indicating that this most recent satellite is of insufficient quality to perform military surveillance, it is unwise to cast aspersions on North Korea’s future space capabilities. Just as their first nuclear test in 2006 resulted in a lackluster detonation, but subsequent demonstrations exhibited increasing power, so should future satellites be regarded with a healthy dose of caution. This is especially so since Pyongyang will continue to pour resources into projects like this.
With that in mind, it might be prudent to explore indirect long-term and contingency-based countermeasures to deal with North Korea’s reconnaissance satellites. Regarding indirect means over extended timeframes, it is worth noting that the Kim regime uses illicit means like smuggling narcotics and other contraband, as well cyber fraud or online heists to generate funds for its military projects.
In response, the national law enforcement agencies of the United States, South Korea, and Japan, along with other friendly nations, should undertake joint investigative and enforcement operations to cripple drug trafficking networks that are either supplied or partially run by the North Koreans. Additionally, the government and private sector cybersecurity authorities and companies of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan ought to band together to both actively foil Pyongyang’s cybercrime and concurrently help reinforce the cyber defenses of partner states. Such efforts to counter smuggling and cyber crime should deprive the Kim regime of several hundred million U.S. dollars of illegal funding annually, slowing the progress of North Korea’s disruptive military technologies.
The U.S. and its allies must also consider anti-satellite tactics for the contingency of conflict with North Korea. Pyongyang’s adversaries would be remiss if they did not explore and develop means of cyber attacks against enemy satellites. Since such earth orbiting equipment carries its own computer(s), which communicate or exchange data with ground-based stations, these satellites are vulnerable to hacking and disruption, like any other typical network linked computer.
Hence, once the communication frequencies for any North Korean satellite are discovered, it would be fairly easy for well-resourced nations like the U.S. to establish ground stations along the orbiting path of the satellite, so that the latter can be contacted, vulnerabilities in its computer’s operating system identified, and a successful hacking/intrusion attempt made. After the onboard computer has been compromised, the satellite can be sabotaged in various ways: a) replacing actual surface images captured with fake intelligence meant to deceive Pyongyang; b) overwhelming the computer with so many fraudulent instructions/requests that it temporarily shuts down; or c) instructing the maneuvering thrusters of the satellite to send it out of orbit into deep space or into the earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up and be destroyed. Hence, cyber attacks can feasibly neutralize the effectiveness of satellites or even lead to their destruction without a single shot being fired.
Finally, as a last resort when a North Korean satellite must be eliminated urgently, an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon or missile can be launched from a high-performance jet fighter to destroy a satellite traveling along a known orbit. The U.S. Air Force had such an ASAT missile available to it in the form of the ASM-135, which has been discontinued. It is not inconceivable that an upgraded version of this missile could be reintroduced into service due to pressing operational exigencies. However, ASAT missiles are not tactically subtle, and the destroyed satellite leaves debris in orbit for years, which can damage other friendly/neutral satellites.
When all is said and done, it is indeed unfortunate that the sanctions regime of the United Nations cannot enforce its own resolutions, like U.N. Security Council resolution 1874, which prohibits all missile launches by North Korea. Instead, it falls to coalitions of like-minded states to implement both long-term and tactical contingency measures to fulfill international mandates.