The satellite that North Korea attempted to put into orbit in May was so rudimentary that it could never serve as a functioning spy satellite as North Korea wished, the South Korean military said on Wednesday.
North Korea launched a new rocket, the Collima-1, on May 31, with the hope of putting its first military reconnaissance satellite, the Malligyong-1, into orbit. The rocket, which set off alarms and a false evacuation order in Seoul, malfunctioned and crashed into the sea off South Korea’s west coast shortly after launch.
South Korea sent military aircraft, vessels and deep-sea divers to search for debris that would yield clues about the North’s rocket and satellite technology.
The South had already salvaged parts of the rocket but confirmed on Wednesday that its military had also salvaged “key components” of the satellite.
After analyzing the debris from the failed rocket launch, experts in South Korea and the United States concluded that the satellite “had no military use at all as a reconnaissance satellite,” the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a news release on Wednesday.
In the space industry, rocket failures are common. But North Korea considered its May failure an embarrassment. In a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party last month, top leaders “bitterly criticized” the officials responsible for the botched attempt, according to North Korean state media.
North Korea said it would attempt another satellite launch “in a short span of time” after addressing technical problems. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, has said that putting military spy satellites over the Korean Peninsula was one of his top priorities.
Experts say that such satellites would make North Korea’s military more effective and its nuclear arsenal more dangerous. But when the North revealed photos of Malligyong-1 in May, outside experts said it looked rudimentary compared to satellites launched by more technologically advanced countries.
Still, in response to the North’s continued arms buildup, the United States and South Korea have expanded their joint military drills in the region.
On Friday, they conducted a combined air force exercise over the Korean Peninsula, involving at least one B-52H strategic bomber. On June 16, the USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered guided missile submarine, made a port call in South Korea, the first such visit since 2017.
When President Biden met his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk Yeol, in April, Washington promised Seoul the “regular visibility” of its strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula to highlight its commitment to defending South Korea against North Korean aggression.
On Thursday, the Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters that a U.S. nuclear-capable submarine would visit South Korea “at some point in the future.” When asked whether the submarine would carry nuclear weapons, he only confirmed that the sub would be “nuclear capable.”
If the submarine arrives, it will be the first known visit to South Korea by a nuclear-capable American submarine since 1981.