S Korea becomes 7th fully-fledged space power

ON JUNE 21, 2022, a 200-tonne South Korean space launch vehicle, the KSLV-II, or Nuri, finally took off from the Naro spaceport in Goheung County, Jeollanam-do Province. The ministry of science and ICT and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute announced that all tasks of the flight had been completed. On June 22, KARI established two-way communication with the satellite, which had been placed in earth orbit, with data sent to the satellite to adjust its position.

From June 29, four small research satellites will begin taking turns to separate at two-day intervals. The satellite will make 14.6 revolutions around the earth per day for two years. Its tasks include checking the performance of the thermoelectric generator, the S-bad antenna and other equipment based on South Korean technology.

On June 23, South Korea successfully launched its first satellite equipped with its own global positioning system — KPS, KASS — into earth orbit to improve signal accuracy and reliability and better ensure flight safety. The launch took place at the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

South Korea, thus, became the 7th country in the world, after Russia, the United States, France, China, Japan and India, to launch a satellite weighing more than one tonne into space on its own. The next launch of Nuri is scheduled for the first half of 2023, with four more rocket launches in all by 2027, and if all goes well, Seoul then plans to send a landing module to the moon by 2031, spending 1.9 trillion won on the project and equaling the USSR, the US and China.

In parallel, in early August 2022, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida will launch the Korea Pathfinder orbiter named Tanuri — a compound of the words ‘tal’, moon, and ‘nuri’, short for ‘nurida’, to explore, enjoy — which after a four-month mission will begin circling the moon in December at an altitude of 100 kilometres, conducting various science projects until December 2023. In particular, it will search for landing sites for Korea’s unmanned lunar lander and collect data on the lunar surface to support the US-led Artemis programme.

If the Tanuri succeeds in its mission, Korea will become the 7th country in the world to explore the moon.

The history of South Korea’s rocket and space programmes has been covered in part previously, but, at the request of the audience, we will tell it in more detail. The first domestic rocket was tested under Syngman Rhee in 1958, and under president Park Chung-hee in 1978, the White Bear, or the NHK-1, similar to the American Nike Hercules, flew 200 kilometres.

The development of a full-fledged rocket aimed at space has been underway since 1993 when the Korea Aerospace Research Institute launched the KSR-1 solid-propellant rocket, which flew for 190 seconds at a maximum altitude of 39km and a distance of 77km. The KSR-2 rocket, successfully launched in 1997, was already a two-stage rocket and reached an altitude of 151km.

However, the solid-propellant rocket could not evolve into a space rocket capable of shooting down satellites because of US range restrictions. In addition, since the establishment of the Missile Technology Control Regime in 1987, the United States has prevented trade in finished rocket products as well as related technologies and components. The Republic of Korea was no exception, despite its status as an ally, and hence the place that helped to develop the Korean space rocket was the former Soviet Union.

The Chosun Ilbo honestly points out that ‘the history of Korea’s space launch development is intertwined with the political and diplomatic transformations of the great powers and the resulting coincidences’, and the Russian default of 1998 contributed greatly to the transfer of Russian space technology to Seoul. Nevertheless, on March 26, 2001, South Korea joined the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal international association that monitors the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

The KSR-3 was a one-stage rocket launched successfully in 2002, but it was Korea’s first liquid-fueled rocket, and it is believed that cooperation with Russia in space technology began there. The launch of the joint Korea Space Launch Vehicle-I project was planned for 2005, but it has been postponed several times. For example, on August 19, 2009, the launch was halted less than eight minutes before liftoff after the automatic launch system had detected a problem in the high-pressure tank.

On August 25, 2009, the KSLV-I successfully entered orbit, but the science satellite could not be orbited due to a malfunction in the fairing assembly. On June 10, 2010, the KSLV-I took off for a second time, but exploded 137.19 seconds after launch, and a successful launch took place only on January 30, 2013.

The first stage of the Naro had an Angara engine imported from Russia while the second stage had a domestically produced solid-propellant thruster.

In parallel, South Korea launched the KSLV-II space rocket project in March 2010. In 2014–2016, liquid-fuelled engine tests were conducted; in March 2018 South Korea began a comprehensive test; and on September 3, 2018, the KSLV-II was named ‘Nuri’, which means ‘peace’ in Korean.

Since 2010, South Korea has invested nearly $1.8 billion in the construction of Nuri. The project was carried out using domestic technology on its own premises, including design, manufacturing, testing and commissioning. However, the rocket engine was the result of the reverse-engineering of a Russian rocket and the helium tank arrangement inside the oxidiser was similarly borrowed from Ukraine.

In 2020, South Korean military launched its first communications satellite, Anasis-II, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

On September 23, 2021, the country’s air force formed a space defence committee with 43 members, including civilian experts. It is co-chaired by air force chief of staff general Park In-ho and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute president Lee Sang-ryool.

On October 21, 2021, Nuri had its first launch — the rocket lifted to 700km — but it failed to orbit a 1.5-tonne payload model because its third-stage engine had burned out earlier than expected. The investigation revealed that the helium tank in the third stage rocket had fallen off due to increased buoyancy during flight and it eventually led to a premature engine shutdown.

Nuri’s next launch was scheduled for June 16, 2022, but South Korea postponed the launch a day before after detecting a malfunction in a sensor in the oxidiser tank. The rocket was returned from the spaceport to the assembly hall for technical inspection.

Overall, however, the author has a number of scattered thoughts on the subject.

First, South Korea is now indeed a participant in the space race, not as the seventh, but the eighth country. South Korean journalists have tried to avoid the fact that North Korea did launch the satellite in 2012 although it is claimed that it weighed less than a tonne. But even if viewed in purely chronological terms, the North has overtaken the South in this field.

Second, claims of a ‘fully domestic technology’ include what was assembled with reverse-engineering. Some South Korean experts have even claimed that South Korean intelligence scientists at Russian research institutes were scrounging bits of documents from waste baskets, trying to reconstruct something useful from scraps of blueprints and notes. It also brings to mind the story of the South Korean astronaut candidate who was suspended for being too attentive to military secrets and then a female double went instead. By the way, Ko San is now a minister in the Yoon Suk-yeol government.

However, as with North Korea, it should be noted that the technology in question is more complex than just stealing and replicating. One has to have one’s own scientific and technical base with one’s own engineering staff.

Third, it should not be forgotten that a launch vehicle is a dual-use technology, like reconnaissance satellites, which can monitor both typhoon movements and troop movements or the construction of new facilities. That is why, when North Korea had effective missiles, UN Security Council sanction resolutions prohibited it from launching any ballistic missiles, despite the right to peaceful space exploration that everyone formally has.

We remember the excitement caused by the North Korean leader’s words about an intelligence satellite, but on April 10, 2022, the media reported that South Korea plans to launch its spy satellite in 2023 on a rocket from the US commercial space company SpaceX. According to officials, the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute and the Agency for Defence Development have signed contracts with SpaceX to use its Falcon 9 rocket to launch four radars. When the satellites are commissioned, they will strengthen South Korea’s overall defence system, including its ability to monitor and track the North’s military movements.

Again, in late April 2022, during the 18th Space Cooperation Working Group meeting in Washington, the United States and South Korea agreed to conduct joint research and strengthen bilateral cooperation aimed at enhancing the alliance’s ability to counter threats in space. So the space race is an element of the military competition in both South Korea and North Korea.

Fourth, such a race is also aimed at political prestige. While the question ‘what useful resources for modern earth civilisation are there on the moon’ remains debatable, its achievement is an act of political prestige as well as a demonstration of the country’s technological capabilities. In both North and South, the rocket programme is the driving force behind other industries, and, in this sense, it may be pointed out that while Moon Jae-in was more likely to hand out promises — we won’t even recall when his government planned to set foot on the lunar surface — Yoon Suk-yeol is at least making attempts to create a domestic equivalent of the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

New Eastern Outlook, June 29. Konstantin Asmolov is a leading research fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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