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North Korea says it will launch its first military spy satellite in June

Pyongyang considers space-based reconnaissance “indispensable” to monitor while describing the combined U.S.-South Korean military exercises as invasion rehearsals.
A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's rocket launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea
A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's rocket launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 29, 2023. Ahn Young-joon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea said Tuesday it would launch its first military spy satellite in June and described space-based reconnaissance as crucial for monitoring the United States’ “reckless” military exercises with South Korea.

The statement came a day after North Korea notified Japan’s coast guard that the launch, sometime between May 31 and June 11, might affect waters in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and east of the Philippines’ Luzon Island.

Japan’s defense minister warned its forces to shoot down the satellite or debris, if any entered Japanese territory, and its coast guard issued a safety warning for ships that would be in the affected seas during the expected launch, citing a risk of falling debris.

While North Korea’s rivals have condemned the country’s planned launch as a banned test of ballistic missile technology, it’s less clear whether the satellite itself is advanced enough to support the North’s stated goals of tracking and monitoring U.S. and South Korean military activities in real time.

The pace of both North Korea’s weapons testing and the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises increased in past months in a cycle of tit-for-tat.

In comments published by North Korean state media, senior military official Ri Pyong Chol criticized the combined U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which Pyongyang has long described as invasion rehearsals. He said North Korea considers space-based reconnaissance “indispensable” to monitor the military exercises.

Last week, the South Korean and U.S. militaries conducted large-scale live-fire drills near the border with North Korea — the first of five rounds of exercises marking 70 years since the establishment of their alliance. Washington and Seoul describe their regular military exercises as defensive and have expanded their training since 2022 to cope with the North’s evolving threats.

Ri said the expanding U.S.-South Korean drills and other military activities underline their “sinister intention” to prepare for preemptive military action against North Korea. He said the “dangerous military acts by the U.S.” and its forces created a concerning security environment that makes it necessary for Pyongyang to gather real-time, reliable information on military movements in the region.

South Korea has warned that North Korea will face consequences if it goes ahead with the satellite launch in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which ban the North from conducting any launch using ballistic technology. Space-launch vehicles for satellites share core technologies with long-range missiles that are built to deliver warheads aimed at destroying intercontinental targets.

“It’s absurd to use our legitimate joint exercises, and the maintenance of the South Korea-US joint defense posture to respond to advancing North Korean nuclear and missile threats, as an excuse to launch a reconnaissance satellite,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk said during a briefing.

“We strongly urge North Korea to immediately cancel its launch plans.”

Last week, South Korea launched its first commercial-grade satellite, which experts say could provide Seoul with key technology and expertise to place its first military spy satellite into orbit later this year and build more powerful missiles.