North Korea said Monday that it conducted an “important final-stage test” for the development of its spy satellite, following reports that it fired two ballistic missiles into the waters off its east coast on Sunday.
The test was conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on Dec. 18 to evaluate the capabilities of satellite photography and data transmission system, state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) said that it launched a vehicle carrying “a test-piece satellite” with a 20-meter resolution panchromatic camera to a 500-kilometer (310 mile) altitude.
The latest test was the “final gateway process” of the reconnaissance satellite, according to the NADA, adding that preparations for the satellite are expected to be completed by April next year.
“The test confirmed the important technical indices, including the technology of camera operation in space, data processing and transmission capability of communication devices, and the accuracy of the ground control system,” it added.
KCNA’s report came just a day after the South Korean and Japanese militaries said they detected two medium-range ballistic missiles launched from North Korea, which flew about 500 kilometers (311 miles).
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missiles landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and that no reports of damages have been reported.
KCNA also released black-and-white photos of South Korea’s cities of Seoul and Incheon, which, when enlarged, showed areas surrounding the South Korean presidential office in Seoul, Yonhap News Agency (YNA) reported.
Hong Min, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, said that the photos appeared to be the socialist North’s attempt to show that it could spy on its rival the liberal democratic South.
“North Korea appears to be making a mockery [of the South] to show that they can spy on us,” Hong Min told YNA.
Shin Jong-woo, a researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said the release of the satellite photos could be intended to threaten South Korea and Japan.
He raised doubt over other KCNA’s photos from the launch scene, which showed an old missile carrying cameras, not a satellite.
“You don’t want to bring an antiquated missile for such an important program as satellite and spate development,” Shin said.
Martyn Williams, a fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said the North’s camera cannot perform usual imaging functions carried out by modern commercial satellites, which offer images at 50 centimeters or 30 centimeters.
“At 20 meters resolution, the satellite will be able to make out buildings, ships and aircraft but not vehicles, people or other machinery,” he told Reuters. “It’s very coarse and isn’t really useful for making any determination on what’s happening on the ground.”
North Korea’s latest launches followed the activation of a U.S. Space Force command in South Korea on Dec. 14. The U.S. Forces Korea said the new unit will focus on missile warning operations and bolstering the military’s space capabilities.
North Korea has fired over 60 missiles this year, including ballistic missiles that flew over Japan in October. It denounced the U.S.-South Korea joint drills as an “invasion rehearsal” and fired hundreds of shells in inter-Korean maritime buffer zones that had been established by the two sides in 2018.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in September that Washington had attempted to engage North Korea in dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but North Korea has refused to cooperate.
“This offer of dialogue and diplomacy has, at least so far, been met only with additional provocations,” Price said at a press briefing on Sept. 26.
Reuters contributed to this report.