South Korea experienced its second space launch failure earlier this month when a rocket exploded shortly after lifting off. In an e-mail interview, Center for a New American Security Fellow Abe Denmark discusses developments and setbacks in South Korea’s space program.
WPR: What is the current state of South Korea’s space program?
Abe Denmark: To date, the ROK’s satellite development program has been rather successful. Its National Space Program, most recently updated in 2005, calls for an ambitious program including the development of 13 satellites by 2010 and the ability to lift a 1.5 ton satellite into low-earth orbit (LEO) by 2015. South Korea’s first indigenously produced satellite, KOMPSAT-1, was launched in 1999 aboard a Russian-produced rocket. Since then, Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) has launched several advanced communications, imaging, and weather satellites.
In contrast to its satellite program, the ROK’s rocket program has been to date a disappointment. South Korea is largely dependent on foreign — often Russian — launching platforms. For example, South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, was trained and sent into space with Russian assistance in 2008. While South Korea has launched a series of “sounding rockets” over the past decade, the second failure associated with South Korea’s space program in less than a year was a major setback. Immediately following the second failure, South Korea’s Minster for Education, Science and Technology Ahn Byong-man announced his plans for a third attempt.
WPR: How could this most recent crash affect the program’s development?
Denmark: Over the long-term, Seoul officially continues to proclaim a goal of launching a space launch vehicle with its own technology, a lunar orbiter by 2020, and a lunar lander by 2025. I do not expect South Korea to outright abandon its space program, and analysts should keep in mind that space programs historically learn from their failures and can improve quickly. I expect that the recent spate of catastrophic failures will likely delay Seoul’s space ambitions.
WPR: How important is independent launch capability to a developing power such as South Korea?
Denmark: South Korea’s space program is primarily driven by matters of national pride and prestige. Though North Korea is severely impoverished, its successes in developing ballistic missiles has conferred upon it a certain degree of peninsular prestige. While South Korea could have ignored the North’s missile development’s at first, these failures have raised the stakes and put Seoul in a place where it cannot back down from a civilian space program without losing face. Beyond issues of peninsular prestige, developing nations all realize that an indigenous space capability is an essential element of national power. From military C3ISR to commercial imagery and communications, space is an integral element of a modern international power. By developing an independent launch capability, South Korea could demonstrate its ability to maintain its position as a global economic, military, and technology leader.