Seoul warns North Korea not to launch spy satellite and hints 2018 military deal could be suspended

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military warned North Korea not to go ahead with its planned spy satellite launch, suggesting Monday that Seoul could suspend an inter-Korean agreement to reduce tensions and resume front-line aerial surveillance in response.

North Korea failed in its first two attempts to put a military spy satellite into orbit earlier this year and didn’t follow through with a vow to make a third attempt in October. South Korean officials said the delay was likely because North Korea is receiving Russian technology assistance and that a launch could happen in coming days.

“Our military will come up with necessary measures to protect the lives and safety of the people, if North Korea pushes ahead with a military spy satellite launch despite our warning,” a senior South Korean military officer, Kang Hopil, said in a televised statement.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik said in an interview with public broadcaster KBS on Sunday the launch was expected later this month and that South Korean and U.S. authorities were monitoring North Korea’s moves.

The U.N. Security Council bans any satellite launches by North Korea because it views them as a disguised test of its missile technology. Kang said while North Korea needs a spy satellite to improve its monitoring of South Korea, the launch is also aimed at bolstering its long-range missile program.

Foreign governments and experts say North Korea is seeking Russian technologies to enhance its nuclear and other military capabilities in return for supplying conventional arms to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Moscow and Pyongyang have dismissed as groundless the alleged arms transfer deal, but both nations — locked in separate, protracted tensions with the United States — have been openly pushing to expand their cooperation in recent months.

In September, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin in Cosmodrome, Russia’s most important domestic space launch center. When Putin was asked by Russia’s state media whether his country would help the North build satellites, he said that “that’s why we have come here. The (North Korean) leader shows keen interest in rocket technology.”

Shin said that with the likely help of Russia, North Korea appeared to have almost overcome an unspecified engine problem on a rocket needed to send a spy satellite into space. He said the North would likely launch the satellite before Nov. 30, when South Korea plans to launch its first military spy satellite from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Kang didn’t explicitly say what retaliatory steps South Korea could take if North Korea makes a third launch. But he strongly hinted the steps could include a resumption of aerial surveillance activities and live-fire drills at border areas, in breach of the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement on easing front-line tensions.

Kang asserted that North Korea has already violated the agreement numerous times. He cited the North’s destruction of an unoccupied inter-Korean liaison office in North Korea, flying of drones into South Korea and live-fire drills along the western maritime boundary.

“Despite the North’s repeated violations of the agreement, our military has been patiently abiding by clauses in the military agreement, but that has caused considerable problems in our military’s readiness,” Kang said.

He said South Korea’s aerial reconnaissance designed to monitor North Korea’s forward-deployed artillery guns has been significantly restricted by the 2018 deal. He said that South Korean military units on border islands have been unable to conduct live-fire drills in their areas and instead held the exercises in faraway inland firing ranges.

The military deal, reached during a short-lived rapprochement between South Korea’s liberal then-President Moon Jae-in and Kim, created buffer and no-fly zones along the rivals' border. The Koreas also removed some of their front-line guard posts and land mines.

Proponents of the agreement in South Korea argued it would prevent accidental clashes with North Korea, but opponents said its mutual reductions of conventional military strength would weaken the South’s war readiness because the North’s nuclear capability remained intact.

Relations between the rivals later strained after the breakdown of broader nuclear diplomacy between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. North Korea has since been focusing on enlarging its nuclear arsenal, prompting South Korea’s current conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, to expand military drills with the United States.

Yoon's liberal rivals said the suspension of the 2018 deal would provide North Korea with yet another excuse to launch provocations.

North Korea said last week it had successfully tested solid-fuel engines for a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, a move that experts say is meant to add a new weapon to its growing arsenal of mobile and harder-to-detect missiles targeting the United States and its allies.

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