The satellite launch comes as Seoul seeks to strengthen its ability to monitor nuclear-armed North Korea.

South Korea has launched its first spy satellite on a rocket operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Saturday’s launch came less than two weeks after rival North Korea announced the successful launch of its own reconnaissance satellite, underscoring the accelerating space race between the neighbors.

The South Korean satellite, carried by a SpaceX rocket marked “KOREA” and launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, entered orbit minutes after launch and was able to successfully communicate with ground control at 11:37 a.m , said the South Korean Ministry of Defense.

The satellite promises to improve Seoul’s ability to monitor nuclear-armed North Korea, which has been heavily dependent on the surveillance capabilities of its ally, the United States.

The satellite, which will operate between 400 and 600 kilometers (370 miles) above Earth, can detect an object as small as 30 centimeters (12 inches), according to Yonhap news agency.

South Korea, still technically at war with the North, aims to launch four more spy satellites by the end of 2025 to improve its ability to keep tabs on Pyongyang.

North Korea’s launch of the Malligyong-1 satellite last month drew condemnation from the United States, South Korea and Japan, whose governments view Pyongyang’s space program as an excuse to test banned ballistic missile technology.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities have advanced rapidly under Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to rule his secretive country, despite international criticism and sanctions.

On Saturday, North Korean state media, known for its bellicose rhetoric, warned that any interference by the “predatory” US in the country’s satellite program would be viewed as a declaration of war.

“If the US attempts to violate the legitimate territory of a sovereign state by illegally and unjustifiably using the latest technologies, the DPRK will consider taking appropriate measures in self-defense to ensure the viability of US spy satellites through the exercise of its own capabilities “to undermine or destroy legitimate rights conferred by international and domestic laws,” the Korea Central News Agency quoted a defense ministry spokesman as saying.

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