SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s military said on Wednesday it had retrieved the wreckage of a North Korean spy satellite that plunged into the sea in May after a botched launch and found it had no meaningful military use as a reconnaissance satellite.
Last month the military also recovered parts of the rocket used in the failed launch; the booster and payload crashed into the sea soon after takeoff.
“After detailed analysis on major parts of North Korea’s space launch vehicle and satellite which were salvaged, South Korean and U.S. experts have assessed that they had no military utility as a reconnaissance satellite at all,” the military said in a statement.
The South’s military said it had on Wednesday ended salvage operations, which began immediately after the debris splashed down off South Korea’s west coast on May 31. Aircraft, the navy and deep-sea divers were involved in the effort.
It is the first time South Korea has secured a satellite launched by the North, South Korean military experts said.
The initial assessment indicated the reconnaissance capability of the equipment was poor in terms of resolution and tracing targets, said Lee Choon-geun, an expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.
Yang Uk, a fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, also said “the resolution of the optical device loaded on the satellite was not suitable for military use.”
South Korea’s military tracked the launch of the space vehicle and identified a large, cylindrical piece of debris in the water just hours after the launch, but the object sank to the seabed.
It was recovered two weeks later.
Last month North Korea made a rare candid public admission of the botched launch, saying it was the “gravest failure” but vowing to soon succeed in its orbital quest.
The nuclear-armed North has pursued a satellite launch program since the 1990s and has said it will launch its first reconnaissance satellite to enhance monitoring of U.S. military activities.
In 2012 and 2016, North Korea launched objects that still remain in orbit. Pyongyang said they were observation satellites, but there has been no confirmation that they are functioning or transmitting signals.
The May 31 launch was widely condemned by South Korea, Japan and the West as a violation of international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the use of ballistic missile technology by the North.
Pyongyang rejects such criticism as an infringement of its sovereign right to self-defense and space exploration.
In a key policy address in January 2021, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, pledged to develop military reconnaissance satellites. In recent months, Pyongyang appears to have upgraded its Sohae satellite launch station, potentially for another attempt.
At a ruling Workers’ Party meeting in June, North Korea blamed the failure on loss of thrust in the second-stage engine and criticized the “irresponsible” preparations by officials and engineers involved.