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Experts sceptical as North Korea claims new satellite has ‘detailed’ pictures of White House and Pentagon

Experts sceptical as North Korea claims new satellite has ‘detailed’ pictures of White House and Pentagon

North Korea has claimed its leader Kim Jong-un reviewed “detailed pictures” taken by its first spy satellite of the White House and military bases of other countries.

However, North Korea has not released any imagery yet, leaving analysts and foreign governments to debate how capable the new satellite actually is.

While the existence of these images or their authenticity have not been independently confirmed, experts cast doubts over the usefulness of such pictures taken by the Malligyong-1 spy satellite launched last week.

The images were taken by the satellite on Monday, according to the state-run KCNA news agency. Mr Kim, who oversaw the launch with his daughter, is said to have reviewed them on Tuesday.

The series of images of what were described as “major target regions” included those of the White House, Pentagon, a US shipyard, and bases in Norfolk and Newport. Four nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and a British aircraft carrier were spotted, according to KCNA.

North Korea claimed the satellite also sent back pictures of military bases in South Korea, the US Pacific territory of Guam, and the state of Hawaii.

Mr Kim expressed “great satisfaction at the successful preparations for the operation of the reconnaissance satellite ‘Malligyong-1’ before the start of its official mission”, the statement from North Korea said.

Pyongyang launched the spy satellite on 21 November, sparking immediate condemnation from its neighbours and the US, as well as the UN, for violation of its sanctions. North Korean satellites are subjected to UN sanctions due to their inclusion of prohibited technology used in the regime’s ballistic missile programme.

Kim Jong-un preparing for the launch of the reconnaissance satellite at the State Directorate of Aerospace Technology in Pyongyang on 24 November (Getty)
Kim Jong-un preparing for the launch of the reconnaissance satellite at the State Directorate of Aerospace Technology in Pyongyang on 24 November (Getty)

The Pentagon said North Korea’s satellite did enter the orbit but did not comment on Pyongyang’s claims about the images it had captured.

“I will say that there are plenty of images of the Pentagon and the White House online,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.

South Korea confirmed that the satellite had entered orbit successfully but it has been unable to verify its capabilities of taking and sending images from space.

Kim Jong-un and his daughter pose with staff of the National Aerospace Technology Administration (NATA) following the launch (AP)
Kim Jong-un and his daughter pose with staff of the National Aerospace Technology Administration (NATA) following the launch (AP)

Dave Schmerler, a satellite imagery expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), said that the satellite could be capable of seeing large areas or warships, as even a medium-resolution camera could offer Pyongyang that capability.

"But how useful those images are depends on what they want to use them for," he said.

For medium-resolution satellites to be useful in a conflict, North Korea would need to launch many more to allow more frequent passes over key sites, Mr Schmerler said, a goal that the North’s space agency has said it is pursuing.

“It’s a big leap for them going from zero to something, but until we can see the images they’re collecting, we’re speculating on its use cases,” he said.

The pictures of Mr Kim examining the satellite images with his daughter suggest they may be panchromatic, a type of black-and-white photography that is sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light, said Jeffrey Lewis, another researcher at CNS.

This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what the country said is the launch of the Malligyong-1 (AP)
This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what the country said is the launch of the Malligyong-1 (AP)

After the launch, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Reuters that two new objects in an orbital plane were catalogued in the US Space Force data.

It was consistent with the launch from North Korea at the time stated by Pyongyang. “I conclude the objects are the spy satellite and the rocket upper stage,” he said.

But it remains unconfirmed whether its payload, the reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1, is operating.

“To assess the success of this launch, it is crucial not only to determine whether the projectile entered orbit but also to secure the ability to adjust and conduct reconnaissance from that orbit,” said Hong Min, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

"This includes verifying the capability to take pictures with optical cameras and transmitting them appropriately to the satellite centre."

Experts have said that if it is a low resolution satellite then it will not be able to provide North Korea with detailed intelligence on specific weapons systems.

But it would be still useful for identifying things such as large troop movements.

Additional reporting by agencies