North Korea preparing missile tests and spy satellite launch, says South Korea
North Korea is preparing for a new round of provocative weapons displays such as long-range missile tests and a spy satellite launch as it ramps up illicit activities to support its fragile economy, South Korea’s intelligence service told officials on Thursday.
North Korea’s chronic economic hardships and food shortages have worsened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and UN sanctions, but it has still conducted a record number of missile tests since last year amid suspicions that its weapons programs are funded by illegal cyber activities and covert exports of banned items.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told officials in a closed-door meeting that North Korea’s economy shrank each year in 2020-2022 and its gross domestic product last year was 12% less than in 2016, according to Yoo Sang-bum.
Outside experts believe North Korea’s current food shortages and economic troubles are the worst since leader Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, but they say there are no signs of an famine or major public unrest that could threaten Mr Kim’s grip on his 26 million people.
The food problem has been aggravated by attempts by the government to restrict market activities, dwindling personal incomes and pandemic-related curbs that decimated foreign trade, according to North Korea monitoring groups.
The NIS told officials that in the first half of this year, North Korea covertly exported an estimated 1.7 million tons of coal, up more than 300% from a year earlier, and 580 kilograms (1,280 pounds) of gold, up 50%, both in violation of UN sanctions, according to Mr Yoo.
It estimated that North Korea has stolen more than $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) in virtual assets since 2015, Mr Yoo added.
The intelligence service also said that Mr Kim is expected to resume weapons testing in response to major annual US-South Korean military drills that begin next week and a trilateral US-South Korea-Japan summit at Camp David in the United States this Friday.
Mr Yoo said that the agency has detected unusually heavy activities at a North Korean facility that produces solid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and at another site related to liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), Mr Yoo said.
The NIS said North Korea also may try to launch a spy satellite in late August or early September to mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s founding on September 9.
They said that North Korea has been testing an engine for the rocket to be used for the spy satellite launch and has installed an additional land antenna to receive satellite data, Mr Yoo said.
Mr Kim has vowed to produce a number of high-tech weapons systems including a military reconnaissance satellite.
North Korea attempted a satellite launch in late May, but the rocket crashed into the ocean soon after lift-off.
North Korean state media said it lost thrust following the separation of its first and second stages.
South Korea’s military has said that debris from the satellite indicated that it was not advanced enough to conduct military reconnaissance as claimed.
The NIS said the launch preparations are intended to protest the Camp David summit or the US-South Korean military drills that begin next Monday, Mr Yoo added.
North Korea is extremely sensitive to US efforts to bolster its alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Since the start of 2022, it has conducted more than 100 missile tests, saying it needs to strengthen its own military capabilities in response to expanding US-South Korean exercises, which have included a US aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear-armed submarines.
North Korea has demonstrated that its ICBMs have the potential range to reach the US mainland, but many analysts believe it still needs to master some remaining technological challenges.
Its shorter-range missiles are capable of targeting South Korea and Japan.
Three of North Korea’s four known types of ICBMs use liquid fuels and the fourth employs solid fuel. Solid-fuelled missiles are easier to move and fire quickly, making them more difficult to detect before launch.
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