On February 27 and March 5, North Korea launched an unidentified medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM)-class booster, to apparently pop the key components of an imagery reconnaissance satellite up to operational altitudes for a few minutes of testing. The unusual tests may be due to past North Korean satellite subsystem failures. While we do not know how well the test payloads performed, it is clear that North Korea wants to convey it is making progress toward placing a “military reconnaissance satellite” into orbit.
What is also clear from these two tests, and a number of statements made about such satellites in the past several months, is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is signaling the intent to conduct a satellite launch via a space launch vehicle (SLV). We do not know when such a launch would occur, the launch site or what SLV would be used. Showing progress on a reconnaissance satellite makes good on one of Kim Jong Un’s objectives laid out at the January 2021 Eighth Party Congress and perhaps is a prelude to flight testing of other capabilities mentioned in that report, including multiple-warhead missiles, solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and ICBM-range solid-propellant submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
If North Korea does conduct a satellite launch in the coming weeks or months, this would be the first since February 2016. The North might regard a satellite launch as less provocative than a launch of an ICBM-class system in a ballistic missile mode, but an SLV launch could still make technical contributions to North Korea’s ICBM capability.
Information to Date
North Korea launched a ballistic missile from around the Sunan airfield toward the East Sea/Sea of Japan on February 27, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. The missile reportedly flew about 300 km at a maximum altitude of 620 km, consistent with parameters announced by Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.
The next day, North Korea released a brief statement announcing “an important test…under the plan of developing a reconnaissance satellite” that it said “is of great significance in developing the reconnaissance satellite.” According to the statement,
The test helped…confirm the characteristics and working accuracy of high definition photographing system, data transmission system and attitude control devices by conducting vertical and oblique photographing of a specific area on earth with cameras to be loaded on the reconnaissance satellite.
The statement was accompanied by two photos of the Korean Peninsula apparently taken from space.
Another ballistic missile was launched from the same area on March 5 to a range of about 270 km and an altitude of approximately 560 km, according to South Korea and Japan. North Korea released a shorter but similar statement the next day, noting the “important” launch occurred “under the plan of developing a reconnaissance satellite” and that it “confirmed the reliability of data transmission and reception system of the satellite, its control command system and various ground-based control systems.” No images were released, which may be consistent with the omission of the camera system from the test’s objectives.
The North apparently decided to use a rocket booster to pop the key components of a satellite imaging system up to operational altitudes for a few minutes of testing, rather than following the common practice of other spacefaring nations of putting an entire test or operational imaging satellite into orbit for days to months (if not years). This might have been prompted by the high failure rate in the operation of previous North Korean satellites, including apparent failures in all three of the areas noted in the February 28 statement: satellite stabilization, the imaging payload and data transmission.
North Korea released no information about the boosters used to loft the test payloads. The range and altitude demonstrated in the launches indicate that, if fired on a traditional ballistic missile trajectory, the boosters could have delivered a payload to a range of about 1,300 km—making them MRBMs. The use of a launch area near Sunan airfield, the site of previous launches of road-mobile ballistic missiles and well away from the North’s known fixed launch sites, indicates a road-mobile launcher was used.
The unidentified booster is most likely an existing type of road-mobile MRBM since it is unlikely that the first test launch of a new-type booster would also be used to test satellite components. Existing road-mobile MRBMs with a range capability of at least 1,300 km include:
- The Nodong, which is not known to have been launched since August or September 2016, but as an older type would provide a good “booster of convenience” to host a non-missile-related test.
- The “Hwasong-8” booster used to launch the North’s “hypersonic missile” payloads in September 2021 and January 2022.
- The solid-propellant Pukguksong-2, which was last tested in May 2017 and is believed to be operationally deployed.
The North Korean statements both mentioned the test being “under the plan of developing a reconnaissance satellite.” This probably refers to Kim Jong Un’s January 2021 report to the Eighth Party Congress that claimed that the design of a “military reconnaissance satellite” had been completed and needed to be put into operation “in the near future.”
Although we do not know how well the test payloads actually performed, North Korea is conveying that it is making progress toward putting a “military reconnaissance satellite” into orbit. It remains to be seen how capable any North Korean imagery satellite would be, the frequency of launches, or how many such satellites might be maintained in orbit at any one time—all key indicators of the actual military significance of such satellites. Regardless, the North Koreans clearly see this capability as having propaganda value and showcasing the regime’s technological prowess and effective leadership.
The North also is signaling an intention to launch an SLV to place the satellite into orbit. We do not know when such a satellite launch would occur, what the launch site would be, or what SLV would be used. Given the concealment capabilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station and the option to use a road-mobile ICBM as the booster, few signs of preparation would likely be observed in advance of an actual space launch if the North chose to conceal it.
A new satellite launch would be the first since February 2016 and would most likely use an ICBM or ICBM-sized SLV like the Taepodong-2/Unha used in past satellite launches. The launch of such a system—the first since the launches of Hwasong-14 and -15 ICBMs in 2017—would also be consistent with Kim Jong Un’s January 2022 threat to resume previously suspended ICBM launches, although the North might regard a satellite launch as less provocative than a launch of an ICBM-class system in a ballistic missile mode.
An SLV launch (assuming it is not the previously used Unha SLV) would also make technical contributions to North Korea’s ICBM capability, although the extent would depend on the characteristics of the booster and the details of the launch. The February 27 and March 5 launches themselves may have made a technical contribution to the North’s missile capability (e.g., by permitting increased confidence in an existing missile type), but there is not enough information on what system was tested to be sure. Indeed, these launches are good examples of how dependent open-source analysts are on information and images released by the North Koreans in assessing missile developments. (US intelligence should have infrared satellite data and other intelligence information to allow identification of the type of booster and other aspects of the tests.)
Showing progress in putting a reconnaissance satellite into operation would fulfill one of Kim Jong Un’s military-related objectives laid out at the Eighth Party Congress, just as with previous flight tests of long-range cruise missiles and “hypersonic missiles.” It may also be the precursor to other more provocative developments mentioned by Kim, such as the testing of multiple-warhead missiles, solid-propellant ICBMs, and ICBM-range solid-propellant submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“Building-up of Self-Defense Capabilities – Indisputable Legitimate Right of Sovereign State,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 4, 2022.
“Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021.
See: Marco Langbroek, Twitter post, February 27, 2022, 6:34 a.m., https://twitter.com/Marco_Langbroek/status/1497897963443695617; and “N. Korea fires 1 ballistic missile toward East Sea: S. Korean military,” Yonhap, March 5, 2022.