South Korea's first rocket ready - at last
Peter J Brown
South Korea hopes to conduct the first-ever launch of a South Korean rocket
some time this month, with the launch taking place at the Naro launch facility,
a brand new site located on an island roughly 480 kilometers southwest of
The two-stage rocket, known as the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1), has
emerged thanks to the engineering and design work of Russia's Khrunichev State
Space Science and Production Center, which was responsible for overall
integration and development of the KSLV-1's lower stage. The upper stage
was designed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).
On board will be a 100-kilogram satellite jointly built by the Korea Advanced
Institute of Science and Technology and the Gwangju Institute of Science and
The Russians were initially seen as ideal partners for this particular project,
which first had a launch date of late 2006. Now, however, the mood at both
South Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MOEST) and the
KARI has turned noticeably sour as launch date after launch date is postponed.
In Seoul, all eyes are on the fast-approaching typhoon season, which starts
next month. The next "launch window" for the KSLV-1 ends around August 18, so
anxiety is mounting.
Last year, South Korea was irritated by the Russian team's failure to deliver a
ground-test vehicle on schedule so engine tests could be conducted. In late
July, the Khrunichev team hesitated again, this time claiming that they needed
more time to ensure that the KSLV-1's propulsion system was functioning
properly. The latest postponement was the fifth launch delay.
"We have been informed that abnormal data was discovered in the testing results
of the first-stage of the rocket, and that the Khrunichev Center will need more
time to analyze that data,'' an MOEST official told The Korea Times. "We have
yet to learn how this is related to the functionality of the rocket engine. We
will reschedule the launch after we have been fully informed of the technical
Russia and South Korea have enjoyed an unusual partnership in space for years.
South Korea's first astronaut was carried into space on a Russian rocket in
2008 after completing training in Russia. In 2006, Russia also launched a small
high-resolution surveillance satellite known as KOMPSAT-2 for South Korea,
although KOMPSAT-3 will be launched on a Japanese rocket.
According to Rodger Baker, director of East Asia analysis at Stratfor, a
Texas-based global intelligence company, Moscow and Seoul began cooperating in
space programs back in 2003, when South Korea, under President Roh Moo-Hyun,
began pursuing a more independent defense and technology capability while
seeking to spur South Korean nationalism.
"The United States had, for decades, hindered South Korea's indigenous rocket
and missile development programs, fearing that a robust South Korean missile
program would only accelerate a regional arms race and could also give Seoul
confidence to perhaps launch its own strikes against North Korea, drawing the
US into a second Korean War," said Baker.
"After the North Korean Taepodong [missile] launch in 1998, Seoul pushed harder
for inclusion in the Missile Technology Control Regime [MTCR], a body
Washington had worked to block South Korea from joining. Then president Kim
Dae-Jung also announced a more ambitious program to develop a South Korean
space program - with or without the US."
In 2001, South Korea finally joined the MTCR, with its sites firmly set on a
satellite launch by 2005.
"Despite membership in the MTCR, Seoul still found it difficult to get its
space program going - it needed to access expertise and equipment from abroad,
and looked to the US and NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]
for assistance, but was largely rejected," said Baker.
This upset the Koreans in light of the fact that NASA was working so closely
with both the Japanese and the Russians.
"Seoul is always watching Japan and uses it as a benchmark, so Japanese
accomplishments goad the ROK [Republic of Korea] and any notion of restricting
ROK access to missiles, rockets and technology will meet a poor reception if
Japan already has it. I doubt the US is happy about this, but only in general
terms," said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific
Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It has the
potential to increase tensions and compound an already difficult situation," he
"[The] US refusal of the sale of advanced tracking radars to South Korea,
something vital for the launch program, left Seoul looking elsewhere - and
Russia was the obvious candidate. Russia was a long-time space power, had
extensive experience in satellite launch programs and the development of
satellite launch vehicles with a fairly successful track record," said Baker.
At the start of their relationship five years ago, Russia viewed the
opportunity to team up with Seoul as something relatively positive. "South
Korea had quite a bit of technology in other areas Russia certainly wanted
access to, and it did not hurt that South Korea had already given Russia large
loans after the collapse of the Soviet Union," said Baker.
Thus, Moscow could repay some of these debts via cooperation in space, while at
the same time, locking South Korea, a key US ally, into a close and dependent
relationship with Russia.
"Things have changed somewhat since then. Russia is no longer entirely sure of
its partnership with South Korea," said Baker.
South Korean access to the Russian first stage has been blocked in order to
prevent the South Koreans from stealing the technology, said Baker. He
explained that the numerous delays have been caused to some extent by Russia's
reluctance to trust the South Koreans.
It is unlikely that this new South Korean rocket and satellite program would
become a competitor to Russia's own launch services anytime soon, given that
Russia's Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan is one of the world's busiest.
It even surpasses the number of launches conducted by its major rival, the
France-owned Arianespace facility in South America, last year. Russia also has
a massive new launch facility under construction inside its borders.
"China has never been too concerned with Russia's role here. As for any Chinese
cooperation, Seoul no doubt saw China's space program as too new and thus
possibly unreliable in terms of forging any viable partnership, while at first,
Beijing was much more concerned with the final preparation for its first manned
space flight than to be distracted helping the South Koreans develop unmanned
satellite launch capabilities," said Baker.
Today, Beijing's stance on the South Korean program remains largely ambiguous,
he said. "China doesn't hesitate to make it clear that some of the components
of the South Korean rocket were made in China - a reminder that Seoul is still
far behind Beijing in the regional space race," said Baker.
"Should Seoul be able to step out on its own and accelerate its aerospace
technology development and industry, however, China will grow more concerned as
this is a sector Beijing has invested quite a bit of time and money into in
recent years. Seeking to carve a new niche for Chinese industry, Beijing does
not welcome the idea of competition from the Koreans."
As for the US and NASA, a stronger relationship with the South Korean space
program has emerged.
"The US remains somewhat concerned about the idea of a regional space race
involving Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea. In addition, as
Washington makes clear in dealing with North Korea, the technology for
satellite launch vehicles is not all that different from that used for
ballistic missiles - and both Russia and China still use ballistic missiles as
the basis for their satellite and manned launch vehicles," said Baker.
Besides Russia's role, the pending South Korean launch highlight what some
experts would say is an inconsistent response by Japan to rocket launches
taking place on the Korean Peninsula. If and when South Korea's luck finally
changes, the KSLV-1 will follow a trajectory that will propel it over southern
Japan, specifically southwest of Kyushu and close to Okinawa with the first
stage entering the East China Sea near Kyushu, and the second stage dropping
near the Philippines.
Despite this trajectory, it is unclear if Japan is preparing its anti-missile
shield again in case of an accident, which could send debris showering down on
the Japanese countryside. It did announce these preparations earlier this year
when North Korea launched what it claimed was its first satellite.
Japan's Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said in April that his government
had held "informal talks" with South Korea on related issues including safety.
"I believe there is no problem," said Nakasone.
Japanese Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Kazuo Kodama was quoted as saying on
the ministry's website that the KSLV-1, "is due to fly over Japanese
territory", and that "their launch is planned for peaceful purposes".
Peaceful or not, this time around there has been no sign of any Japanese or US
Navy countermeasures being planned in the event the rocket abruptly veers off
course. Right up to the time of the latest postponement in late July, the
Japanese government had given no indication that any Patriot anti-missile
batteries or AEGIS-equipped warships capable of shooting down errant missiles
and rockets were being positioned near Kyushu or further west in the event of
Both China and even North Korea are electing to say nothing for now about this
inaction on the part of the Japanese Self Defense Forces despite an obvious
180-degree turn that is being executed here by Japan and the US Navy.
"The Chinese would not say anything to suggest that any country doesn't have
the right to have a peaceful space program, even if they had concerns," said
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based CSIS Freeman
Chair in China Studies.
This is indeed puzzling given that Japan along with the US went to such great
lengths to mobilize their missile defense forces in the event that the recent
North Korean launch went terribly wrong and threatened to rain debris down on
Many Japanese government officials described the measures taken during the
North Korean launch as prudent and necessary, so these same officials must be
quite confident that nothing will go wrong during this upcoming initial flight
of the KSLV-1. But this view goes against what is being said in the hallways at
MOEST where, "experts have been telling anyone that asks that the chances of
the [KSLV-1] successfully reaching orbit are less than 50%." (See, Korea Times,
Or perhaps something is being done very quietly to prepare for an accident, but
without the Japanese public being informed.
"China will not call attention to the discrepancy. There are obviously issues
in Sino-Japanese relations that are causing tensions, but the Chinese are quite
committed to keeping the relationship on an even keel," said Glaser.
"Look at the bigger picture. Japan is about to vote in a new party and a new
leader that is likely to publicly commit to not visiting the Yasukuni Shrine
[war grave], that is much more important to the Chinese. Some in China might
say that Japan is using North Korea's provocations as an excuse to develop its
military, but the Chinese are not going to condemn those actions."
Peter J Brown is a freelance writer based in the US state of Maine who
specializes in the global satellite arena.