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The Peninsula

Should South Korea’s Space Program Go Private?

Published January 30, 2013
Category: South Korea

By Troy Stangarone

In recent years, South Korea has been in a space race of sorts with North Korea, in which it risked falling behind after the recent successful North Korean launch on December 12. With the successful launching of the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1), South Korea has joined an elite group of thirteen countries who have successfully put a rocket into space and pulled even with its neighbor. Now the larger question is what should come next for South Korea’s space program?

The successful North Korean launch increased the pressure on South Korea to succeed in its third attempt to put the KSLV-1 into space. However, the two situations remain starkly different. While North Korea is suspected of attempting to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles on which it can place a nuclear payload in defiance of UN sanctions, South Korea has been transparent in its efforts to develop a space launch vehicle for commercial purposes.

While national pride may have been affected by North Korea’s success in placing a rocket into space first that is not necessarily an indicator of the future success of South Korea’s own space ventures. During the first space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was the first to reach outer space. However, the United States has arguably had the more successful space program.

The KSLV-1 was built using a combination of Russian and South Korean technology, though South Korea has set a goal of placing its own fully developed rocket into orbit by 2021.  South Korea also hopes to become a player in the global space services market as part of a drive to increase high value exports.

The history of space flight has been dominated by government backed ventures. South Korea’s development program has been relatively cheap compared to others at an estimated $500 million for the KSLV-1. Much like rocket development in other countries, the private sector has played an important role in the process with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute building the Korean designed second stage booster.

However, independent players in the private sector are increasingly becoming important in the industry. Multiple U.S. government agencies are looking to open up delivery to private suppliers such as SpaceX, which can deliver a payload into space for between $80 to $125 million, a fraction of the current price. For smaller payloads, Virgin Galactic thinks it will be able to cut the cost to $10 million. Perhaps further increasing the competition from the private sector are SpaceX’s efforts to develop the world’s first fully reusable rocket, which could cut the price of a launch to a mere $250,000.

South Korea has a history of succeeding where other’s believed it would not. In high competition industries such as steel and automobiles, companies such as Posco and Hyundai became global success despite the odds. In the last 50 years, underestimating South Korean determination has not been a successful bet. However, these were also largely private sector successes. If the goal is to become a successful supplier of space launch vehicles, South Korea may need to consider a stronger private sector role in its efforts going forward.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from thebadastronomer’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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