In early February, advancing cooperation in space was one of the topics discussed between Korea and the United States. “We agreed that space is the next frontier in our expanding partnership,” said Foreign Minister Park Jin after meeting with his counterpart on February 3rd in DC. His remarks built on President Yoon Suk Yeol’s vision for the domain outlined last November. Among his goals for Korea are using an indigenously developed rocket to reach the Moon in 2032 and land on Mars in 2045. President Yoon also said that he would fulfill his campaign promise to develop an aerospace agency to oversee space development, and also support Korea’s space industries. While Korea has set its sights on the stars, experts in Washington caution that it should be prudent in how it invests its resources in developing the space domain.
Recent years have seen Washington and Seoul deepen their partnership in reaching the stars. In May 2021, South Korea became the tenth country to sign the Artemis Accords, an American initiative to return to the Moon. They also collaborated on the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, or “Danuri,” which was jointly developed between NASA and Korea Aerospace Research Institute. The payload entered into lunar orbit in December 2022, after leaving the Earth in August. As CNN reported in January, images captured by Danuri will be used to identify locations suitable to land for missions launched under Artemis.
The U.S. has also said it would support South Korea in the development of the Korean Positioning System. “There are only a few countries in the world that have their own navigation satellites,” said Sam Wilson, a senior policy analyst at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. “South Korea developing its own positioning navigation timing satellites would be pretty significant.” It would be a regional system like the Chinese BeiDou Navigation Satellite System and Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), and unlike the American Global Positioning System (GPS), Russian GLONASS, and European Galileo systems which provide global coverage. The KPS was announced in 2018, and aims to supplement access to GPS, which North Korea has been a target of North Korea. In May 2021, the U.S. said in a joint statement that is supported the creation of KPS, and would help ensure its compatibility with the American GPS.
Some experts caution that the KPS may not necessarily be something Korea will want to focus on. Regional positioning systems are particularly useful, as their position over the target area provides coverage despite interference from tall buildings in urban environments. Such targeted coverage would provide benefits, whether its greater accuracy when hailing a rideshare or ensuring information is available during a contingency. But Dr. Pace says looking for ways to partner with others in the region, like with Japan, may be more useful. “That is, of course, politically difficult, and we all know the reasons,” he said. But a joint project “would make more sense than a completely separate, independent Korean system that is trying to carve a space for itself against competition from QZSS and BeiDou and GPS.”
An indigenous space launch vehicle, key to President Yoon’s aim of reaching the Moon independently, is another difficult goal. Experts say it may be a costly endeavor that South Korea will need to realize on its own. “The launch business, which everybody likes to focus on, is actually a terrible business because it’s like a lot of transportation systems, e.g., rail, canals, shipping, [and] airlines,” said Dr. Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. In his analogy, many governments subsidize the private sector because of its high costs and to ensure connectivity abroad. But building and operating aircraft is an extremely expensive undertaking that many countries struggle with, a challenge that exists for space launch capabilities. Dr. Pace added that South Korea cannot expect foreign assistance in developing this technology, as the U.S. and other members of the Missile Technology Control Regime will be concerned about the proliferation of ballistic missiles, which have a similar design. “My sense is that South Korea doesn’t need a space launch vehicle,” said Dr. Brian Weeden, the director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation. “This is one of those complicated issues where South Korea’s probably not going to see an economic return on investment.”
Human spaceflight is an area where the U.S. and South Korea may collaborate, but maybe not directly in the public sector. There has been only one Korean astronaut, Yi So-yeon, who spent a total of 261 hours in space back in 2008. “You can do these kinds of one-off launches, and maybe Korea will do it again,” said Dr. Pace. “But flight opportunities are so limited and are relatively expensive.” However, the growth of the private sector means that maybe the next Korean astronaut may not be flying on a government built space shuttle. With the decommissioning of the International Space Station expected at the end of the decade, private companies have announced plans for their own structures. “Maybe a Korean company, supported by the government, would want to take an equity position in one of those projects,” said Dr. Pace. “And that would in turn, earn an opportunity to put Korean astronauts in space aboard a private platform, not NASA platform.”
Data collection on space may be an area where South Korea can contribute to space development without having to leave the Earth. “We have a growing field of what’s called space situational awareness, which is the ability to look up into the skies and just understand what is there,” said Jonathan Cham, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Expanding the pool of data on objects in orbiting the Earth makes it easier to avoid collisions in space, whether it’s satellites or space stations. Dr. Weeden says South Korea’s proximity to China and North Korea makes it a good candidate to contribute data for this critical area of space policy. “Korea offers some interesting geographic location to host some of those sensors to help with some of this tracking,” he said. Korea watchers may recall the difficulties in deploying radars associated with the Terminal High Altitude Defense system, but Dr. Weeden points out that commercial radar has become sophisticated enough to contribute to this area of information collection. “That’s an example of something that is probably much less likely to spark diplomatic blowback from China or for North Korea,” he said.
The South Korean government will need to find a balance between identifying areas where it needs to independently develop its own technology and finding partners among other governments or the private sector. “There’s potential for any space actor — which could be anything from a commercial entity to a nation-state — to establish a foothold and make contributions to the broader areas of space sustainability or space security,” said former Brigadier General Bruce McClintock, a senior policy researcher at RAND. Even a major space power like the U.S. doesn’t always go it alone when it comes to space. Mr. Wilson points to the Norwegian launch of a Space Force communication system scheduled for this year. By hitching a ride with the Scandinavians, the U.S. is projected to save over $900 million. “If you’re developing capabilities jointly, you can be more cost effective, and you can extract more from space than if you have to do everything by yourself,” he said.
While it is admirable that President Yoon aspires to see Koreans land on the Moon and Mars, South Korea will need to think carefully as it considers how to contribute to the development of space, for scientific and economic activities. But while the final frontier still presents large challenges, South Korea should be confident that it can find ways to overcome these obstacles. “The door is open for whatever Korea would like to do,” said Dr. Pace.
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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