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The Peninsula

Will Korea Join the Space Race?

Published October 24, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Chad 0’Carroll

This Friday South Korea will make a new attempt at launching a satellite using the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1). If it is successful, the ROK will become the eleventh country in the world to have developed a national capability to send objects into orbit. But after its two previous failures, this will reportedly be South Korea’s last try at launching this type of rocket.

Having been in a “space race” of sorts with its northern neighbor since Kim Dae Jung initiated a the program following North Korea’s failed Taepodong launch in 1998, South Korea has even more impetus than ever to get the launch right this week. With North Korea failing in its third attempt at getting a satellite into orbit this past April, Seoul will be eager to show its nationals how the multi-billion dollars investment in the project has finally born fruit.

Compared to North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle system, the “Naro” (as it is more commonly known in the ROK) is unique in that the rocket combines an indigenously designed and manufactured second stage with a foreign made liquid-fuelled first stage. This joint design emerged thanks to South Korea’s close work with the Khrunichev State Space Science and Production Center of Russia, an partnership formed after years of space collaboration in other areas like Russia’s assistance in launching an ROK satellite in 2006 and even a Korean astronaut in 2008.

The muted reaction of the international community to the planned launch comes in stark contrast to the hysteria that emerged in April of this year when North Korea unsuccessfully tried to launch its Unha-3 rocket over Philippines territory. Back then, Japanese naval boats were waiting to shoot down the rocket down if it strayed into their territory, while Manila called on Pyongyang to abandon the launch, making strong complaints about the prospects of the DPRK rocket entering its airspace.

With South Korea’s rocket forecast to fly over the regions of Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Caraga, in contrast to April’s launch, this time Philippine authorities have been calmly preparing for the unlikely but possible event of falling debris, warning locals to keep clear of air and see in the areas as a special precaution. For its part, Tokyo is maintaining the same reaction to previous South Korean attempts, remaining all but quiet on the subject when compared to past DPRK launches.

North Korea will be almost sure to pick up on all of this on Friday, pointing out what it sees as a double standard in international reaction to the two launches. However, a key differentiating factor that Pyongyang will be sure to omit relates to UN Security Council Resolutions against North Korean launches. While the DPRK launched its rockets in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, the ROK has on the other hand has been developing its rocket program well within its peaceful right to space exploration. And although North Korea claims its Unha program also falls within the realm of a peaceful right to space exploration, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program gives few on the UN Security Council cause for confidence when it comes to this line of reasoning.

South Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology now says that the “chances of success have improved compared to the first and second attempts, because both Korea and Russia have removed all possible causes of failure.” If South Korea is successful, the launch will mark an important milestone in the countries’ space program, giving it critical insights into how it can make other future attempts work.

But even if the launch is successful, South Korea has already started work on a 100% domestically developed system that aims to have a 75 ton rocket engine produced by 2021. Perhaps unsatisfied by repeated problems in getting the joint Russian-ROK rocket into space, researchers working on the new program will nevertheless be eager to see South Korean success this Friday. Success this Friday will go a long way in bolstering public confidence in making the 2021 goal seem attainable.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Mathew Ingram’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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