SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Monday it tested cameras to be installed on a spy satellite, a suggestion that it’ll likely soon conduct a banned long-range rocket launch to modernize its weapons arsenal and apply more pressure on the Biden administration.
The United Nations and others view a satellite launch by North Korea as a cover for tests of missile technology, as ballistic missiles and rockets in satellite liftoffs share similar bodies, engines and other technology. Concerns about a North Korean satellite launch flared after it recently threatened to lift a four-year moratorium on big weapons tests to cope with what it called U.S. hostility.
The official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday’s test involved cameras for a reconnaissance satellite conducting vertical and oblique photography of a specific area of Earth. It said the test “is of great significance in developing the reconnaissance satellite” and released photos of the Korean Peninsula that appeared to be taken from space.
North Korea didn’t directly acknowledge any missile launch, but the KCNA statement suggests North Korea fired a rocket or a missile to take space-based photos. U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials said Sunday they detected a new ballistic missile launch by North Korea, the eighth of its kind this year.
Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said the photos were likely taken when the missile was soaring or reached its apogee. But Lee said he couldn’t verify the quality of the North Korean cameras because it didn’t release higher-resolution satellite images.
After repeated failures, North Korea successfully put its first satellite into orbit in 2012 and second one in 2016. North Korea says both are Earth observation satellites launched under its peaceful space development program.
Lee said North Korea developed both satellites to spy on its rivals. He said the second satellite is said to be still in obit but there is no evidence that it has relayed any imagery back to North Korea.
Experts say the North’s past satellite launches have still improved its missile programs. In 2017, North Korea performed three intercontinental ballistic missile tests that demonstrated its potential ability to attack the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.
A spy satellite is among an array of sophisticated weapons systems that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed last year to develop under five-year military buildup plans. It remains unclear whether North Korea has developed or secured sufficient levels of cameras to be put on a satellite and enable it to monitor South Korean and U.S. military activities.
Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the North is expected to launch a rocket carrying a spy satellite ahead of a major political anniversary in April, the birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
He suggested that Washington’s strained ties with Moscow and Beijing — both veto-wielding powers at the U.N. Security Council — would make it difficult for the U.N. to slap additional sanctions on North Korea over the satellite launch. He said tensions would still deepen as the United States would strengthen military drills with South Korea — which North Korea views as an invasion rehearsal — in response.
In January, North Korea test-launched a variety of missiles including one capable of reaching the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and hinted at restarting suspended long-range and nuclear tests. The North Korean moves were seen as a bid to prefect its weapons technology while pressuring the Biden administration to offer concessions like sanctions relief and increasing its leverage in future negotiations with Washington.
Some experts say North Korea may also view the U.S. preoccupation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a chance to accelerate testing activity without receiving any serious response from Washington.
According to the Japanese assessment, the North Korean missile fired Sunday few about 300 kilometers (190 miles) at a maximum altitude of about 600 kilometers before landing off North Korea’s eastern coast.
Lee said the North needs a much more powerful rocket to put a functioning spy satellite into orbit.
After Sunday’s launch, Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, held calls with senior South Korean and Japanese diplomats. He underscored America’s readiness to engage in serious diplomacy with North Korea while reaffirming “ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of” South Korea and Japan, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.