By Tim Beal

Continued from Part 1

The Race to the Stars – Dual-use Competition

The two Koreas are rather special in that they also compete in space exploration, or more specifically, the launching of satellites. Neither of the Germany’s did that, and whilst China is by now a major space power, Taiwan has not substantially competed in that particular race. Although Taiwan has satellites in orbit, it has not developed its own space launch capability.

All modern countries want to utilise satellite technology, and if they are big enough, to have their own satellites, but a launch capability is another matter. The Wikipedia page ‘Timeline of first orbital launches by country provides a handy reference of countries with their own launch capabilities. It is an interesting list of ten countries (or nine plus the European Space Agency, ESA). The Soviet Union was the first, with Sputnik in 1957, and although the Soviet Union no longer exists the two major successor countries, Russia and the Ukraine still retain launch capability, though the latter’s is probably in suspension. The UK did launch one satellite but then abandoned capability, and France no longer launches on its own but as a leading member of the ESA. The United States was the second country to launch a satellite and is of course a leader in the field. Apart from the government National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) there are also two private companies though they have had a checkered history with one of them, SpaceX, suffering a failed launch on 2 September 2016.

The rest of the list is Japan, India, Israel, Iran, and North Korea. Not South Korea. Therein lies an interesting and complicated story of sibling rivalry being enmeshed in great power patronage. That narrative is discussed in some detail in my chapter ‘Satellites, Missiles and the Geopolitics of East Asia,’ coming out in an edited collection later this year, but here I will just touch on the legitimacy aspect – which involves not merely the competition between the two Koreas but also the concomitant issue of South Korea’s subordinate relationship with the United States.

A Brief Note on Rocket Science

The focus here is on the race between the two Koreas to be the first to launch a satellite into orbit.  But as the western media routinely confuses satellite and ballistic missile technology when discussing North Korea, a short detour on rocket science may be useful.

Satellites are launched by ballistic rockets. ‘Ballistic’ merely means the natural trajectory described by an object which is propelled into the air by an initial force. If you throw a stone into the air it follows a ballistic trajectory, first rising and then falling as gravity overwhelms that initial propulsion. A rocket which is propelled with sufficient force achieves a velocity that enables it to place a satellite into orbit, where the centripetal force of gravity is balanced by the centrifugal force of the rocket. If the rocket achieves escape velocity it might go to the Moon and beyond. Flying objects which have continuous propulsion – airplanes, cruise missiles, and short-range rockets for instance – do not follow a ballistic trajectory. Not all missiles are ballistic, cruise missiles being the important example, and of course not all ballistic rockets are missiles, although they all have military implications.

What is the difference between a ballistic missile and a ballistic rocket which launches a satellite, usually called a carrier rocket or space launch vehicle (SLV)? The principal difference relates to function; the carrier rocket is designed to go up and for its payload, the satellite, to stay up whereas a missile should go up and then come down, to deliver its payload, a warhead, on a target. To do so the warhead has to withstand the extreme heat of reentry and hence requires a heat shield. Both warhead, which needs to be miniaturized to fit inside a rocket, and reentry have been topics recently in respect of North Korean missiles, but not of course of satellite launches where the question does not arise. Since the DPRK’s first attempt to launch a satellite in 1998 the US and allied governments (principally South Korea and Japan), and the Western media have been couching them in terms of ‘disguised missile tests’.  Experts have long known that this was nonsense. There is an overlap in technology but as Taoka Shunji, a former defense writer of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun put it:

It has become common for media to remark: “The technology for ballistic missiles and rockets for launching satellites is basically the same. The only difference is whether they carry warheads or satellites.” However, if we follow the same logic we can say: “The basic technology for fighter jets and passenger planes is the same.”

The American expert John Schilling in an article whose title posed the question ‘Is North Korea’s Space Program Really about Missile Development?’ concluded that ‘The usefulness of such launches in terms of developing better ballistic missiles is extremely limited.’

None of this has prevented governments lying to the people. There was, for example, the curious Leap Day Agreement of 29 February 2012 between the US and the DPRK (the only time the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang) in which, amongst other things, North Korea agreed to a ‘moratorium on long-range missile launches.’ Crucially the phrase is the same in both the US and DPRK versions. When North Korea subsequently attempted to launch a satellite later that year – unsuccessfully on 13 April, then successfully on 12 December – the US declared this violated the agreement and refused to honour its commitments.  The episode remains a bit of a mystery because the Americans knew that North Korea was planning a satellite launch, knew that a satellite was not a long-range missile and could presumably have put ‘satellite’ into the text of the agreement if they had wanted to.

U.S.’ Rein on South Korean Rocket Technology

It comes as no surprise that the US did not want North Korea to develop any capability in rocket technology even for civilian purposes, but what might be surprising is that the U.S. had many of the same concerns in respect to South Korea, and this had repercussions on the space race between the two Koreas.

Firstly the US has laid stringent restraints on South Korean development of missiles, mainly in terms of range but also payload. Nuclear warheads are of course out of the question ever since the US clamped down on Park Chung-hee’s nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s. The US has used both bilateral agreements, and the ostensibly multilateral (and voluntary) Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to limit South Korea’s missile capability. Empires need to balance the usefulness of subordinates’ military capacity with the need to keep those subordinate states under control. In this case the US did not want South Korea to have the autonomous capability of attacking the North and provoking a war with China.  Conflict with China may well be on the agenda, but Washington did not want Seoul jumping the gun.

However, American concerns went further, and this had surprising repercussion on the inter-Korean space race.  Apparently the US was worried that left to its own devices South Korea might develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  An ICBM would be of no value against Pyongyang, or indeed against Tokyo or Beijing. The only two capitals that come to mind for its use are Moscow and Washington. Paranoid or prudent, the US blocked South Korean plans to develop an SLV, and so South Korea turned to the other major space power – Russia.

As Table 5 shows Russia has been the main launch country for South Korea’s satellites, especially in recent years.

Table 5. South Korea’s satellites, by date and launch country

Year Date Launch country Satellite
1992 10 August France Oscar 23
1993 26 September France Kitsat-2
1995 5 August US Mugunghwa 1*
1996 14 January US Koreasat 2
1999 26 May India Kitsat-3
1999 4 September France Koreasat 3 (Mugunghwa 3)
1999 21 December US Kompsat (Arirang)
2003 26 September Russia Science and Technology Satellite STSat 1
2006 28 July Russia Kompsat 2 (Arirang-2)
2006 22 August Sea Launch** Koreasat 5
2009 25 August SK/Russia STsat-2A (failed)
2010 10 June SK/Russia STsat-2B (failed)
2010 26 June France Coms 1 (Cheollian)
2010 29 December France Koreasat 6
2012 17 May Japan KOMPSAT-3 (Arirang-3)
2013 30 January SK/Russia STsat-2C
2013 22 August Russia KOMPSAT 5
2013 21 November Russia STsat-3
2013 21 November Russia Cinema 3
2015 26 March Russia KOMPSAT 3A

In terms of the number of satellites South Korea is a fairly substantial player. As of September 2016 South Korea had 18 satellites in orbit. This was way behind the 1495 of Russia (CIS/USSR) or the 1346 of the US but 11th (equal with Spain) ahead of Brazil (15) and Australia (14) and was way ahead of North Korea with 2. But satellites are no longer particularly sexy, and so in the competition between the two Koreas they do not count for much. They have less impact on public consciousness and media attention than the phallic thrust of a carrier rocket blasting into space.

South Korea has made three attempts at launching a satellite in collaboration with Russia. The first two were failures and the third, on 30 January 2013 succeeded.

South Trails North in the Race to the Stars

There were two flies in this particular ointment. One was that North Korea had beaten the South to the draw by launching a satellite the previous month, on 12 January 2012. This success was replicated on 7 February 2016, and the scorecard is shown in Table 6. By this account North Korea was the first to launch a satellite and has two in orbit against the South’s 1.

Table 6: Satellite launch attempts by the two Koreas

No Date Vehicle/satellite Outcome
North Korea
1 31 August 1998 Paektusan-1/ Kwangmyongsong -1 Failed*
2 5 April 2009 Unha-2/Kwangmyongsong-2 Failed*
3 13 April 2012 Unha-3/Kwangmyongsong-3 Failed**
4 12 December 2012 Unha-3/Kwangmyongsong-3 Success
5 7 February 2016 Unha 3-/Kwangmyongsong-4 Success
South Korea
1 25 August 2009 Failed
2 10 June 2011 Failed
2 November 2012 Cancelled
3 30 January 2013 Naro-1/ STSAT-2C Success

The second problem was that the North’s satellite launch was very much an indigenous effort although of course all things have antecedents. The North Koreans had drawn on Russian rocket technology, but then American rockets of the 1950s owed much to the German V2. However the South’s Naro program was not merely a joint effort, but it was one in which Russia was very much the senior partner. The crucial first stage booster, which provided the power behind the Korean second stage, was Russian, and so was much else:

Out of 150,000 parts that go into the Naro, 120,000 are Russian-made and only around 30,000 homegrown.

South Korea has for some time had plans to develop its own SLV but when and perhaps whether that will come to pass is uncertain. Such projects are always fraught with difficulties, and the road to the stars is littered with failures. The case for a middle economy such as South Korea developing an indigenous space-launch capability is debatable.  The existing international commercial launch market is crowded and is underpinned by military needs. The major players – the US, Russia, China, and India all have ICBM programmes, and this has provided a cross-subsidy for commercial activities and even probably for commercial companies such as SpaceX.

Nevertheless the South Korean government is pressing ahead:

South Korea is now spurring a new 1.96 trillion won ($1.67 billion) project to fire by 2020 a wholly homebuilt three-stage, 200-ton vehicle carrying a 1.5-ton satellite, dubbed KSLV-II.

The initiative is on track for a test launch in December 2017…………To inject fresh vigor into its space program, the Park Geun-hye administration jacked up this year’s related budget by a whopping 20 percent [year] on-year to 746.4 billion won.

In July it was reported that the initial launch had been postponed by ten months, taking it into late 2018. By that time there will be new administrations in Seoul, and in Washington. However, unless there is an unexpected change in US policy North Korea will feel the need to push forward with its space launch programme because of the cross-over with developing a long-range deterrent, and the South will feel obliged to compete. The Korean space race will surely continue.

Diplomatic Recognition – the Cornerstone of Legitimacy

To be continued in Part 3


Tim Beal is a New Zealand-based scholar whose area of expertise is the geopolitics of Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power (2005) and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War (2011) and an occasional columnist for the Washington-based website NK News.

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