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. It found that the satellite did not appear capable of military surveillance.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said a 36-day salvage operation that deployed ships, aircraft, and divers had recovered “various parts” from the debris splashed into international waters in the Yellow Sea after failing minutes into the flight. It reportedly included an engine that might shed light on Pyongyang’s rocket technology and help verify whether the North procured the components for its space programs overseas in violation of UN sanctions.
It was the first time the North had attempted to put a military satellite into orbit. Pyongyang quickly admitted the failure at a rare public event and vowed to make another attempt soon. The mission was essential to leader Kim Jong Un’s plans to boost the country’s military capability.
North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency reported on Tuesday that the failure occurred because the launch vehicle experienced a malfunction shortly after takeoff. The satellite was intended to be part of a space-based reconnaissance system the North needs to counter escalating security threats from South Korea and the United States.
But the satellite shown in the country’s state media needed to be more advanced to produce high-resolution imagery. According to outside experts, it may have detected troop movements and large targets such as warships and warplanes, but only a little more.
According to Yonhap news agency, experts analyzing the satellite debris say it might have a camera with a resolution of about 330 feet (100 meters). It also might have been able to track moving targets and gather information on weather conditions.
The North has already launched two other satellites into orbit, in 2012 and 2016, but they weren’t believed to be designed to collect intelligence, unlike Malligyong-1. The debris retrieved from the Yellow Sea could explain how Pyongyang is making technical progress in its ICBM project and whether it has procured any components abroad in violation of sanctions, a professor at the Korea Aerospace University said.
George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at Middlebury Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Reuters that the retrieved object appeared to be a fuel tank. Its round, brown shape suggested it was filled with fuel or oxidizer. He added that the retrieved pieces might reveal how the fuel and oxidizer were injected into the tank, how the fuel and oxidizer were separated, and how the satellite was fitted to the rocket.
The military last month recovered parts of the rocket used in the North’s failed launch, including the booster and a cylindrical payload. It is expected to retrieve more remains from the sea in the future. The recovery of the satellite and its launch vehicle would be a significant step forward for Seoul in its efforts to bolster its military defenses against the North, which are already at a peak.