Finally, he moves.

Malligyong-1, North Korea's first observation satellite, carried out a series of maneuvers for the first time between February 20 and 24, found Marco Langbroek, a satellite expert at Delft University of Technology in the United States. -Down.

“These maneuvers prove that Malligyong-1 is not a 'dead' satellite and that North Korea controls it perfectly, which was not established until now,” specifies this specialist in a blog post published Tuesday February 27.

Nobody knew, in fact, what to think of this satellite since its launch with great fanfare on November 21, after two previous attempts which had ended in failure.

A few days after Malligyong-1 was put into orbit, Pyongyang claimed that it had already succeeded in sending images of North American nuclear sites.

An announcement that no independent expert has been able to confirm.

The South Korean authorities even maintained at the start of the week that the “satellite gave no sign of life whatsoever”.

Technological prowess?

Marco Langbroek's observations – which have not yet been confirmed by any space authority – suggest that Seoul may have spoken a little too quickly.

“This indicates not only the success of the launch, but also the operational establishment of control of this satellite,” summarizes Sebastian Harnisch, specialist in North Korea at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany.

It's not nothing.

Indeed, “if launching a satellite is no longer as much of a technological feat as before for a Western country, it still remains a challenge for a nation, like North Korea, cut off from the rest of the world,” assures Juliana Suess , specialist in space security issues at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a leading British think tank in defense matters. 

But this feat does not mean that Kim Jong-un now has a device allowing him to observe from space the slightest movements of American President Joe Biden in the garden of the White House.

“Until we have seen images taken by this satellite, we will absolutely not know what the real observation capabilities of Malligyong-1 are,” tempers Sebastian Harnisch.

That's why it's probably still a little early to call it a real "spy" satellite.

“It may be the stated ambition, but with North Korea, we know that there is always a certain amount of time between declarations of intent and the success of the project,” notes Christoph Bluth, expert in the Korean Peninsula at the University of Bradford, UK.

Alone in space

The only certainty – confirmed by the South Korean authorities – is that “this satellite is in low Earth orbit”, specifies Juliana Suess.

That is, it is somewhere between 200 and 2,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface.

It is in this range that most reconnaissance satellites are stationed, because "it is a good distance to be able to take detailed photos of the targeted terrestrial regions", notes Juliana Suess.

“This type of satellite is used, for example, to follow troop movements and locate a target. It is useful both for passive observation and for preparing a strike,” explains Joseph Byrne, specialist in North Korea. at Rusi.

Even if it is really equipped with everything it takes to become Kim Jong-un's eyes in space, Malligyong-1 is still very alone up there, and we do not know the quality of transmissions from its data.

To be able to continuously observe a specific area, such as an American military base on the island of Guam, it would be necessary, according to Sebastian Harnish, "at least five satellites positioned in such a way" that one of these space cameras is always aimed at the target.

We also don't know "how Pyongyang can communicate with its satellite to retrieve any images, and how long these communications can last," adds Juliana Suess.

Connections between spy satellites and the speed of information transfer are essential elements for evaluating the usefulness of such a device in alerting of danger.

“We should rather see this as a first step in the development of a national satellite observation system,” believes Sebastian Harnisch.

The North Korean regime has also announced that it plans to send three additional satellites in the coming year. 

Question of prestige

For the experts interviewed by France 24, these satellites "made in North Korea" are most likely much less efficient than existing commercial solutions.

The regime could very well buy – or hack – satellite images sold by these companies. 

But "it is not so much the quality that counts as the fact of having an autonomous system which allows Pyongyang to be independent of other actors", assures Sebastian Harnisch.

This is all the more important since North Korean satellites are believed to play a role in the nuclear program.

“They are intended in particular to identify where enemy launch silos – particularly North American ones – are located and serve as an alarm system,” explains Christoph Bluth.

In these conditions “it is more reassuring for Pyongyang to have its own satellites,” adds this expert.

With images provided by private companies – Chinese, Russian or otherwise – Kim Jong-un's regime could never be 100% sure that it had received the best possible information.

And having your own satellites "is also a question of prestige", believes Juliana Suess.

For the North Korean authorities, "it's a way of saying that they have their own nuclear program and their satellite, while South Korea does not have these two elements", estimates Sebastian Harnisch.

“This reinforces the official discourse which is to say that they are on an equal footing with the United States and are therefore legitimate to speak directly with Washington, without going through Seoul,” he concludes.

For this to happen, North Korea still needs to prove that Malligyong-1 is the first in a line of real "spy" satellites and not just a new propaganda argument.

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