By Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- The former chief of the U.S. Space Force has warned that possible cooperation between North Korea and Russia could enable Pyongyang with "greater" space capabilities as concerns grow over the two countries' efforts to forge closer ties.
Ret. Gen. John W. Raymond, the U.S. Space Force's first chief of space operations, made the remark in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul last Thursday, a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit at the Vostochny space center in Russia.
At the spaceport, Putin told Russian media that Moscow would help Pyongyang build satellites, as the North has sought to advance its space capabilities, with a planned launch of a military spy satellite next month after two failed attempts this year.
"Having cooperation with Russia could potentially enable North Korea with greater capabilities in the space domain," Raymond said when asked about what the possible cooperation could entail.
Pyongyang's launches of its Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite mounted on the Chollima-1 rocket failed in May and last month due to technical issues, according to the North's state media.
The promised assistance from Russia has raised speculation of Pyongyang possibly making advances in the effort.
But the retired general, who led the Space Force from its inception in 2019 until last year, said he was not "overly concerned" with North Korean satellites so far.
"The satellites they're working on now, I'm not all that overly concerned about because they haven't been that capable and there's plenty of other satellites -- commercial satellites -- up there that have more capability," he said.
In July, South Korea's military said the North's spy satellite had "no military utility" after analyzing wreckage of the first launch retrieved from the Yellow Sea.
Raymond still expressed concern about Pyongyang's continued ballistic missile launches and pointed out the role of the U.S. Space Force in responding to such threats.
"They are also obviously conducting ballistic missile tests, which is concerning," he said. "Our focus has been largely keeping a watchful eye on being able to detect the missile launches and warn countries of those launches."
"We operate a constellation of satellites that can detect missile launches globally, and then we share that information with our close partners," he said.
North Korea has continued to advance its missiles program despite U.N. Security Council resolutions banning the country from any launches using ballistic missile technology.
It test-fired the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, which can reach the U.S. mainland, on two occasions this year.
To bolster security cooperation with South Korea, the U.S. military established the U.S. Space Forces Korea here in December last year.
"I was really happy that we've established the Space Force component here," Raymond said. "I think that will help us integrate space more effectively into this region, and I think it will help us continue to mature and nurture the partnership that we have with South Korea as it relates to space."
Raymond also noted how the increasing use of space led the U.S. to establish its newest armed service.
"What used to be great power competition between the Soviet Union and the United States has now gone down to high school students launching satellites," he said. "Because the domain had changed so much, the United States decided to capitalize on an opportunity to establish a service that's dedicated to (it)."
As the domain gets more crowded and contested, Raymond highlighted the need for a set of rules or international norms in space, just as in any other domain.
"We have to make sure that we operate smartly, and that we do so in a safe and professional manner," he said. "I'm not naive enough to think that if you have a set of rules everyone will follow, but if you have a set of rules, you'll identify who's not following."
The former Space Force chief retired from the military in January after 38 years of service. He has since joined a U.S. space company, Axiom Space, as a board member and strategic adviser.
Axiom Space, which seeks to build an international space station, has joined hands with South Korean company Boryung, signing an agreement earlier this year to set up a joint venture here to push for joint space projects.