South Korea is a key US alley in East Asia. This fastest growing country is the fourth largest economy of Asia. South Korea and North Korea could be regarded as states separated at birth. Technically, South Korea is at war with North Korea for the last many years. Since its inception in 1948, North Korea has mostly be a part of the list of countries unfriendly with the USA and its allies. Over the years, North Korea has been called ‘names’ like the State Sponsor of Terrorism, Rogue State, part of Axis of Evil and even at times Outpost of Tyranny. Evaluation of South Korea’s progress or retreat in any field is mostly done by factoring the North Korean angle.
Like any other developing state, South Korea is keen to invest in space technologies for its socioeconomic benefits. At the same time, appreciating the typical security circumstances they are embroiled in and the nature of investments they are doing in military hardware, it becomes obvious that space is and would be an important element of their military preparedness particularly since they are a part of a US military alliance. The US militaries’ dependence on space technologies is well-known. Presently, ‘South Korea has been caught between political and historical legacies and emerging complex threats, while searching for a new strategic paradigm and operational concepts that would allow greater flexibility and adaptability under conditions of strategic uncertainty. The changing security dynamics on the Korean Peninsula has arguably decreased the effectiveness of South Korea’s traditional deterrence and defence strategies. In this context, their military has attempted to adapt selected US RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) concepts as a part of broader military modernization to counter the widening spectrum of threats, mitigate technological and interoperability gaps with US forces, and eventually attain self-reliant defence posture’ . Various Western, South Korean and Japanese spy agencies are using human and technical intelligence as a means to learn more about internal situation and military preparedness of this hermetic country. Today, South Korea suffers from a typical security dilemma, and this makes them to spend approximately 2.5-3 % of their GPD for the defence.
Any assessment of the South Korean investments in the space technologies needs to be carried out at the backdrop of regional geopolitical realities. Apart from the civilian and commercial benefits of space technologies, its relevance for satisfying South Korean strategic requirements needs to be appreciated. The RMA philosophy of South Korea revolves around making significant investments in the area of command, control and surveillance systems (C4ISR). Importance of space technologies (either developed indigenously or otherwise) to carry this agenda further is obvious.
In mid-September 2005, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Ministry of National Defence announced a Defence Reform Plan designed to modernise ROK military equipment and achieve a higher level of professional military personnel. The most crucial aspect of the plan was the massive investment in battle management assets focusing on C4ISR, all of which are essential for network-centric warfare. This Defence Reform 2020 plan has mandated the acquisition of theatre operational command facilities, communication networks and military communication satellites .
South Korea started late in the space arena in comparison with other important space actors in the region. They started with their various activities in space arena in late 1980s. It’s interesting to note that they started ‘thinking big’ in the initial stages of development of their space programme only and announced its ambitions to work in astronautics and other space fields. During Aug 1989, the state established Satellite Technology Research Centre (SaTReC). The centre started with their associate with the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in area of micro-satellites. Within 3 months after the creation of centre, South Korea established its national space agency called Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) . The first South Korean satellite Kitsat-1 was launched on Aug 10, 1992, onboard an Ariane launcher, and satellite manufacture was facilitated by the Surrey systems.
South Korea’s first indigenously produced satellite, KOMPSAT-1, was launched in 1999 aboard a Russian-produced rocket. Since then, the KARI has launched several advanced communications, imaging and weather satellites . The KARI has also been involved in the development its own rockets too. Apart from successful launching of various satellites in space (with outside support), the other notable achievement by South Korea has been to launch its first astronaut into space with Russian assistance in 2008. The biggest limitation of the South Korean space programme so far has been its inability to successfully develop its own satellite launch capability.
By the 1990s, South Korea had developed an independent capability to manufacture solid propellant rocket motors of up to 1-ton mass. In 1990, KARI had built the first indigenous sounding rockets, flown as the KSR-I and KSR-II. In December 1997, KARI was planning the development of liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket motor for an orbital launcher, but this idea was discarded because by then the South Korean government had proposed to try to be amongst the top ten spacefaring nations by 2015 and they wanted to leapfrog the technology curve. They decided to follow the route of international collaboration for rapid progress. Hence, they engaged with Russian companies to assist in building a new space launch centre together with a large space launch modular booster. This multibillion dollar programme got underway in 2004.8
The first two attempts by South Korea with its indigenous launching system to launch satellites have failed. South Korea had launched its first space rocket during Aug 2009, but the satellite it was carrying failed to enter into its proper orbit.
South Korea’s two-stage Naro rocket had Russian liquid-fuelled first-stage while the second stage, burning a solid fuel, was produced by South Korean engineers. The rocket could place the satellite into orbit but not followed its intended course. The satellite had reached an altitude of 360 km, rather than separating at the intended 302 km. South Korean agencies had described this as a partial success/half success. The second attempt during Jun 2010 was a major failure when the rocket exploded 137 s after the takeoff. These two successive launch failures have put South Korea satellite programme under pressure, and they are yet to realise the dream of becoming spacefaring nation.
Even though South Korea is not able to successfully develop a launch system, still their success with satellite design and manufacture is noteworthy. Till now, they have launched 12 different satellites. From strategic context, their investments in KoreaSat are significant. This series of satellites are basically for commercial purposes (communication and broadcasting). Amongst the four satellites launches so far, KoreaSat-5 (Aug 2006) has an integrated communication system for military purposes . They also have a KOMPSAT/Arirang series satellite for Earth observation purposes. All these satellites are mainly devised for civilian uses; however, their defence utility could not be ruled out. Their requirements for spy satellites or dedicated military observation satellites are obviously being met by the systems available under the US command.
Limited achievements in space arena have not deterred the South Korea from continuing ‘thinking big’. As per their Ministry of Science and Technology, they are proposing to develop a large-sized rocket capable of carrying 300 ton of freight into space by 2017. They also have plans to develop a space shuttle launching system by 2020. The state is keen to undertake missions in the deep space arena and has plans to send an unmanned probe to the Moon’s orbit in 2020 and land a probe on the Moon’s surface in 2025.11
Like any other developing state, South Korea’s space agenda also suffers from the budgetary limitations. They understand that presently there is disconnect between their ambitions and achievements. Exact reasons for their inability to successfully develop launch vehicles are difficult to identify. From the technological perspective in the business of rocket science, two consecutive failures are not desirable but definitely tolerable. For many years, the USA is having concerns about South Korea’s ballistic missile intentions. Probably, that is the reason they could be (secretly) unhappy to the South Korean inroads into rocket technology. This also could have had certain impact on the progress of South Korea in developing launcher technologies.
After making years of investments in space arena, now it is unlikely for South Korea to discard its space programme just because of few failures. They
understand that space is an integral element of a modern international power and has connotations both for national pride as well as international standing. They are also keen to exploit the economic and strategic benefits of this technology. The state is expected to quickly learn for its failures and make rapid progress in near future.