North Korea appeared to launch a military spy satellite late Tuesday, South Korea’s military reported, just hours ahead of a launch window set by Pyongyang.
Japan’s government also reported that North Korea launched what appeared to be a ballistic missile, while warning residents in Okinawa prefecture to take shelter immediately.
About 30 minutes later, Japan lifted the evacuation order, saying the missile had likely passed over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean at about 10:55 p.m. local time.
Earlier Tuesday, North Korea informed Japan that it planned to fire a satellite launch vehicle in the direction of the Yellow Sea and East China Sea during a nine-day window starting Wednesday.
If confirmed, it would be North Korea’s third attempted spy satellite launch this year. Previous attempts, in May and August, ended in failure due to rocket problems.
It is not clear whether North Korea’s latest attempt succeeded. North Korea often does not comment on its missile launches until its state newspapers are published the following morning.
Last year, North Korea said it planned to launch “a lot” of spy satellites into orbit to provide real-time information on what it called the “aggression troops” of the United States and its regional allies.
The military significance of such developments is unclear. North Korea has not revealed how many spy satellites it intends to keep in orbit simultaneously. Analysts are also uncertain about the quality of imagery they will produce.
After retrieving parts of a North Korean spy satellite and space launch vehicle that plunged into the sea in May, South Korea’s military said it assessed that the device “had no military utility” as a reconnaissance satellite.
“However, I think even a satellite with rudimentary capabilities could still be a first step, or could modestly improve North Korea’s situational awareness,” said Tianran Xu, an analyst who focuses on Northeast Asian security and missile systems for the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network. “And if this launch succeeds, it means this could be a beginning.”
During a September meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Russia’s Far East, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to confirm Moscow was helping Pyongyang build satellites. However, the exact nature of any cooperation remains unclear.
“I’m not sure how much of the possible knowledge transfer or technology transfer [from Russia] can really be integrated into this existing launch vehicle and satellite,” Xu said, noting the relatively short window between the second and third launch attempts.
“Even if there is some substantial Russian aid coming – either in satellite technology, sensor technology, or in the launch vehicle itself – if it’s that substantial, they may choose to use the knowledge…for their next launch,” Xu said.
North Korea has placed at least two satellites into orbit – the latest in February 2016 – but neither are believed to be working. Pyongyang claimed those launches were part of its peaceful space development program.
The United States and its allies condemned those launches as thinly disguised tests of long-range missile technology. North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Earlier Tuesday, North Korean state media published an editorial defending its spy satellite launches, insisting the program is a “war deterrent” that will help promote a “strategic security balance in the region.”
The North Korean editorial, written by an aerospace technology researcher, criticized South Korea’s upcoming satellite launch as an aggressive and “extremely dangerous” military provocation.
South Korea plans to launch its first domestically built spy satellite, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, on November 30 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.