(ATTN: UPDATES with Seoul official's remarks in paras 17-18; RECASTS 14th para)
By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Dec. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has conducted an "important final-stage" test at its rocket launching facility on putting a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit, with a plan to complete preparations for the project by April next year, according to its state media Monday.
The test was conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on Sunday mainly to "evaluate the capabilities of satellite photography and data transmission system and ground control system," according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The country fired a vehicle carrying a "test-piece satellite" at a lofted angle to an altitude of 500 kilometers, an unnamed spokesperson at the National Aerospace Development Administration said in an English-language statement carried by the KCNA.
North Korea will "finish the preparations for the first military reconnaissance satellite by April, 2023," the official said, adding that the latest test was the "final gateway process" for the launch of such a satellite.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said Sunday it detected the launches of two medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) from Tongchang-ri areas into the East Sea. The missiles, fired at steep angles, flew some 500 kilometers, it added.
The North's media did not mention whether leader Kim Jong-un inspected Sunday's firing in person.
The development of a spy satellite is on a list of high-tech weapon systems that Kim ordered to advance at a key party congress in January last year, along with tactical nuclear weapons and solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The Sohae rocket launching facility in Tongchang-ri, not far away from the border with China, is a site where North Korea tested a high-thrust solid-fuel rocket engine last week for a "new-type strategic weapon system," a move seen as developing a solid-fuel ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Meanwhile, the KCNA released black-and-white photos of Seoul and a port of its adjacent city of Incheon presumed to be shot from the test-piece satellite. When magnified, the photos vaguely showed areas surrounding the South Korean presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul.
Some experts here said the photos seem too "crude" to say they were shot from a military spy satellite, raising doubts about the North's claim. Some said that regardless of the authenticity of the photos, Pyongyang apparently aims to boast of its reconnaissance ability.
"North Korea appears to be making a mockery (of the South) to show that they can spy on us," Hong Min, a researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
North Korea launched Hwasong-17 ICBMs in February and March, claiming they were test-launches of spy satellites.
Outside experts said North Korea's purported launch of a satellite is widely seen as a covert test of ballistic missile technology. North Korea is banned from developing ballistic missiles under a series of U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions.
The North may seek to fire a vehicle carrying what it claims to be a satellite to mark one of its key anniversaries in April 2023, according to observers. Those include the 11th anniversary of leader Kim Jong-un taking the first secretary post at the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) on April 11 and the birthday of late founder Kim Il-sung on April 15.
South Korea's unification ministry on Monday condemned the North's firing of ballistic missiles the previous day, calling the firing a clear violation of related UNSC resolutions and "grave" provocations that threaten peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
"North Korean authorities need to make efforts to develop their economy and improve North Korean people's human rights and the quality of life," the ministry's spokesperson Cho Joong-hoon, told a regular press briefing.
Despite the North's claim, the South Korean military maintained its initial analysis that Sunday's launch involved two MRBMs.
"Given the specifics of the missile detected, the assessment by the South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities remains unchanged that what the North fired yesterday were MRBMs," JCS spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak said during a regular press briefing.
North Korea has fired more than 60 ballistic missiles so far this year, the largest in a single year, including last month's launch of a Hwasong-17 ICBM, amid speculation it may conduct a nuclear test in the near future.