North Korea using Russian satellite navigation system instead of GPS for missile launches, observers say

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North Korea has been launching missiles without the support of America’s global positioning system, instead turning to Russia’s satellite navigation network, according to observers.

In its fourth test this month, Pyongyang on Monday fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Pyongyang also conducted tests of hypersonic missiles on January 5 and 11 and fired ballistic missiles on Friday, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

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The latest tests come after the US on Wednesday imposed new sanctions on North Korea over the launches and again called for Pyongyang to return to denuclearisation talks that have been stalled since 2019.

Pyongyang’s frequent tests in recent years – including two intercontinental ballistic missiles with an estimated range of more than 6,000km (3,700 miles) in 2017 – have drawn condemnation. They have also highlighted the gains in North Korea’s missile programme – even without using America’s GPS.

“None of the anti-American countries [such as North Korea] will use GPS because of their worries about possible disruption or interference by the US military,” said Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review.

Chang said they instead used the Chinese BeiDou navigation system or Russia’s global navigation satellite system (Glonass).

But according to a source close to the Chinese military in Beijing, the BeiDou system – which has been fully operational since 2020 – does not provide support to other countries for missile launches.

The source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said North Korea had been using the Russian system – whose coverage is not as broad as that of GPS – for its missile tests.

“Experts from Pyongyang assessed China’s BeiDou system as well as the Russian one and they decided Glonass was more suitable for the country’s geographic location, its high latitude, when launching missiles,” the person said.

“Moreover, it’s an open secret that the North has been benefited from the legacy of the former Soviet Union, which transferred intermediate-range missile technology to Pyongyang after signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the US.”

The INF Treaty – signed in 1987 and abandoned by Washington in 2019 – required both the US and the Soviet Union to eliminate all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500km to 5,500km. However, Moscow had transferred technologies to its ally Pyongyang, according to the source.

Intelligence agencies in the US and Europe have long believed that North Korea incorporated Soviet designs and technology – going back to the 1960s – into many of its missiles, military publisher Janes and The Washington Post have reported.

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Meanwhile, China’s BeiDou navigation system is being used by both Iran and Pakistan for military applications, according to the source in Beijing.

“Iranian experts have managed to combine 12 civilian BeiDou signals and this – supported by their own calculations – gets it closer to the military version [used by the PLA] in terms of accuracy,” he said.

Former People’s Liberation Army instructor Song Zhongping said Pakistan’s military was also likely to be using a limited version of BeiDou.

“While China may share some codes for the BeiDou military signals with Pakistan under their strategic partnership, it would be regional not global,” he said.

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