SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea‘s homegrown “Nuri” space rocket successfully launched eight satellites into orbit on Thursday in a development the country’s President Yoon Suk Yeol hailed as “a splendid feat” proving his nation’s status among other countries with advanced space capabilities.
The launch included the delivery by South Korea of a commercial-grade satellite into orbit for the first time, a major breakthrough in Seoul‘s push to outcompete its Asian neighbors in space and rival the capabilities of the Group of Seven nations on the world stage.
North Korea, which is widely expected to launch a reconnaissance satellite in the near future, was no doubt taking careful note of the South’s success on Thursday — as were a range of other countries across the region and the world, whose capitals are scrambling to acquire sovereign launch capabilities.
The international space race has heated up over the past decade, with delivery vehicles and their payloads featuring a range of strategic uses, from military to commercial and communications realms.
South Korean officials say Seoul has very specific national reasons for upgrading both its launch capabilities and the technical prowess of its satellites in recent years.
On one hand, South Korea is secured from North Korean rocket, ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction threats by the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the region. On the other, officials say Seoul needs its own extended satellite coverage, as it proceeds down a decades-long pathway toward taking over full operational control of its military troops — a so-called “OPCON” transfer — from the United States.
Given that the Nuri space rocket’s booster stage is equivalent to that of an intermediate range ballistic missile, or IRBM, the country may also be proofing itself against distant, future enemies. While any near-term weapons payload that may be carried by the Nuri would be conventional, Mr. Yoon drew global attention in January by raising the possibility of acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
Mr. Yoon more recently signed the Washington Declaration with President Biden, under which South Korea stated a commitment not to develop its own nuclear weapons.
‘Nuri’ secures strategic future
The triple-stage Nuri — meaning “world” in Korean — rocket was launched at 6:24 p.m. Seoul time on Thursday from the Naro Space Center, set beside idyllic beaches and amid emerald hills and shimmering rice fields on South Korea’s southwestern tip.
The rocket delivered a one-ton payload into orbit, according to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. The main cargo, a radar demonstration micro satellite, successfully contacted Korea’s Antarctic Station. Seven other microsatellites were also on board.
Nuri’s launch had been set to occur a day earlier, but officials said it was delayed to Thursday due to a fuel-system glitch. Mr. Yoon said in a celebratory statement that the successful launch showed “South Korea has entered into the G7 space powers,” a reference to the group of democracies that includes the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom.
China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the U.S. have placed their own domestically produced satellites into orbit via homegrown rockets. Seoul’s first satellite entered orbit in 1992, sent aloft by the European Space Agency.
The Nuri program, originally based on Russian technologies, kicked off in 2010. Thursday’s launch was the third time the rocket has been flown. Future launches are slated to occur through 2027 in the program that has reportedly cost South Korean taxpayers some $1.5 billion so far.
Proponents of the program say the cost represents a good value that will manifest well beyond future commercialization of satellite launch services and spin-off civil technologies.
Space rockets have long been dual-use technologies that apply to ballistic missiles. But satellites also have soaring importance in modern warfare.
In Ukraine, reconnaissance satellites grant battles pace overview, enabling data-networked munitions — from guided missiles to suicide drones to smart artillery shells — to strike with killer precision.
Satellites provide South Korea with improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ISR, which officials say is vital for OPCON transfer. Processes toward the transfer have been underway, per an agreement between Seoul and Washington, since 2006, but without a clear end-date in sight.
Seoul, which is secure via its current mutual defense treaty with Washington, may not require the dual IRBM capability that Nuri represents, as the current South Korean weapons arsenal includes shorter-range weapons capable of targeting North Korea.
But South Korean strategists are seen to be prudently future-proofing their native missile force, thinking ahead to a time when the country may be looking over more distant horizons.
Mason Richey, a professor of international relations at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said there are three reasons for the country to develop Nuri: economic opportunities, OPCON transfer, and IRBM capabilities.
“Obviously you don’t need an IRBM to hit North Korea, but you are hedging, long-term, against China,” said Mr. Richey.
IRBM capabilities, he added, are “the least important — at least for right now.”
North Korea looks to space
Mr. Yoon, in his celebratory message Thursday, did not reference North Korea’s satellite-launch program.
Analysts say the program is well under way. The isolated and impoverished nation is reported to have invested massive, although undisclosed, amounts of scarce national capital on ballistic-missile hardware and technologies.
North Korean satellite launches in 1998, 2009 and 2012 are believed, by international agencies, to have failed. But other launches, including in 2012 and 2016, are believed to have placed earth-observation satellites into orbit.
Another North Korean launch may be imminent.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited with his regime’s satellite launch committee last week. South Korean National Security Adviser Cho Tae-yong said on Tuesday that although Mr. Kim had promised a reconnaissance satellite launch in April, he was facing “various problems.”
A launch could come “in the near future,” Mr. Cho said.
North Korea is banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions from developing ballistic missile technologies, including satellite launch technologies. However, Pyongyang routinely defies sanctions to develop and test its programs.
So far, no actions taken by the global community have proven effective in halting the programs.
While South Korea faces no international censure for its own efforts, that is not the case for North Korea.
“One country is under sanctions, and one country is not. That is a matter of international law,” said Mr. Richey. “North Korea — justifiably or not — is sanctioned, so there is no double standard: It’s comparing apples and oranges.”
China and Russia have declined to condemn North Korea’s missile tests since the outbreak of the Ukraine War, but Mr. Richey noted that both were both party to prior U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea.
Other nations also seek the capabilities the two Koreas are bent upon acquiring.
“The trend is toward more and more countries getting sovereign launch capabilities,” one defense industry source said on condition of anonymity. The source mentioned Australia, Taiwan and the United Kingdom as three examples.
The driving force is not simply the war in Ukraine, which smashed the status quo, or the rise of China. Some analysts say unease felt by U.S. allies during the unorthodox Trump presidency — a presidency that demanded allies spend more on native capabilities — has also been a factor.
“Everyone and their brother wants it,” said the defense industry source. “It is a desire to account for any future changes in global circumstances.”
• Andrew Salmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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