South Korea's first homegrown space rocket 'Nuri' is launched at the Naro Space Centre, 473 kilometerss south of Seoul, on October 21, 2021. Photo: AFP / Yonhap

SEOUL – Amid national fanfare, South Korea on Thursday launched its first fully home-grown rocket into space.

TV newscasters were ecstatic and lawmakers stopped work as they watched the 2 trillion won (US$1.8 billion) Nuri – a word roughly meaning “for the world” – rocket, blast off from the Naro Space Center in the country’s deep south.

The 200-ton three-stage launch vehicle, which employs exclusively South Korean technologies, sought to place a placed a 1.5-ton dummy satellite in orbit. UPDATE: In that it failed, but the rocket reached its target altitude of 700 kilometers.

At least four more test launches are expected through 2027, according to domestic reports.

Given that previous South Korean orbital launches in 2009 and 2010 (unsuccessful) and 2013 (successful) had used Russian technologies, Thursday’s event marked a national landmark, of sorts.

Yet South Korea is almost a decade behind local competitor North Korea, which successfully hefted its first satellite into orbit in 2012.

With satellite launch vehicles being dual-use technologies – the booster stages are essentially the same mechanisms used to lift a ballistic missile – few doubt that Pyongyang used what it learned with its intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, program. 

South Korea’s rocket reached the 700-kilometer point, just short of the the altitude required for an ICMB, which is some 800-2000 kilometers above earth. However, the altitude Nuri achieved is appropriate for an intermediate range ballistic missile, or IRBM, with a range of some 3,000 kms.

Korea has no obvious over-the-horizon enemies to deter with an ICBM or IRBM at present, but the national space program slots into synchronized national defense programs – as even the country’s president admits.

“To usher in an era of ‘National Space Development’ beyond ‘Defense Space Development,’ we will also boldly advance an artificial intelligence-based cyber warfare system, reconnaissance satellites and solid propellant-related technologies for space launch vehicles,” President Moon Jae-in said in an October 1 speech. 

This suggests that Seoul is dissolving firewalls and using the same technologies to power up rejuvenated missile programs in what is looking increasingly like a cross-peninsula arms race with North Korea.

One outcome of the presidential summit between Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden in Washington in May was the lifting of a US cap on South Korean missile development. That cap, which had been in place since 1979, had limited the kind of rocketry Seoul could develop.

The fruits of this lifting became apparent with surprising speed.

In September, Seoul successfully tested a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile, or SLBM, a weapon for which it has major, and expensive, ambitions – although local media had reported similar tests as early as January.

“We find ourselves in a rocket race,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “The North Koreans started it and we are trying to counter this threat by having our own capabilities.”

Yet a South Korean IRBM or ICBM has no utility – and an SLBM very limited utility – to counter North Korea. Meanwhile, South Korea is also planning an F35-equipped aircraft carrier and is adding airborne capabilities to its Marine Corps.

Quite why South Korea, a middle power without expeditionary intentions nor any apparent out-of-theater enemies, is preparing these expensive, far-ranging assets is something of a mystery.

Experts suggest that sagacious strategic minds in Seoul may be looking farther afield than the state lying only 35 miles north of the city, and much further ahead than mid-term strategic horizons.

A South Korean SLMB takes flight. Photo: AFP

Who is South Korea aiming at?

The intentions of North Korea – which has sacrificed its civil economy on the altar of military spending – in boosting its tactical and strategic rocket forces are clear.

Over dependent upon China, fearful of the US and in competition with South Korea, it is too poor to maintain the efficiencies and equipment scales of its 1.1 million-strong conventional forces. So, it has targeted its defense spending at non-conventional assets: Special operations units and its nuclear-capable missile force.

The strategic aims of South Korea – a non-nuclear middle power that nestles under the aegis of the US “nuclear umbrella” – are less clear.

While North Korea presents a clear and present danger, Moon, over the last five years, has prioritized inter-Korean engagement and peacebuilding as a centerpiece of his administration.

If South Korea were to divert domestic space technologies to an an IRBM – a weapons with a range of some 1,900 miles – or an ICBM – a weapon with a range of 8,000+ miles – it would obviously not have neighboring North Korea in its sights.

For that, existing short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and stand-off, air-launched weapons are the tools for the job. Tactical missiles are also an element in South Korea’s “kill chain” strategy designed to take out the North Korean leadership in the event of hostilities.

“Does South Korea need an ICBM? I would say, ‘Probably not,’” said Chun. But asked whether space program technologies could have dual-use applications elsewhere in the missile space, he said “definitely.”

What then of SLBMs?

President Moon called his country’s domestic SLBM assets “a definite deterrence against North Korean provocations.”

Some local media have speculated that the non-detectability of the weapon grants it real applicability against North Korea, which is not known to have advanced anti-submarine capabilities.

However, the limited number of SLBMs carried by South Korean submarines raises question marks, and experts who spoke to Asia Times were skeptical about its deployment against the North.

“It is totally unnecessary, given South Korean and US inventory on the ground,” a source familiar with naval operations told Asia Times, adding that South Korea, itself, is “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

The expected cost of South Korea’s projected five-boat, underwater missile force, mounting 50 SLBMs, is $5-7 billion. “We could get the same amount of missiles on the ground for about $100 million,” Chun said. “So the math does not make sense.”

For North Korea, an SLBM might be a usefully stealthy and survivable delivery vehicle to add to its existing armory of ground-based missile launch platforms aimed at the United States and its Pacific bases.

The reasons for Seoul possessing the asset are cloudier.

A South Korean Ahn Chang-ho class submarine, used as a platform for the country’s nascent SLBM program. Photo: AFP

Big shiny toys

“Perhaps there is a desire to be a strategic power, a world player,” mused the source. “But who is the enemy?”

An enemy would seem to be predicated, given the amounts being spent – and the amounts being mooted – in Seoul.

At the same time that South Korea’s SLBM and domestic space programs are seeing results, a debate is underway within defense circles on acquiring a light aircraft carrier, equipped with F35 stealth fighters.

“Our navy is progressing toward an ‘ocean-going navy’ by pushing a project to build a 30,000-ton level light aircraft carrier that can serve as a multipurpose military base anywhere in the vast ocean,” Moon said on Armed Forces Day on October 1.

Asia Times understands that British and Italian design companies have teamed up with South Korean shipbuilders to promote their respective models.

But once again, this kind of blue-water vessel has limited potential against North Korea, compared to extant on-ground assets. And South Korea’s armed forces, since the Vietnam War, have not undertaken operations globally, beyond peacekeeping and anti-piracy patrols.

Yet expeditionary operations seem to be coming into focus.

Moon, on Armed Forces Day, chose to speak before his country’s Marine Corps – an arm with an offensive, seaborne mission profile – where he discussed yet more far-ranging capabilities.

“When the Marine Corps Aviation Group is re-established in December this year, our marines will finally be armed with multidimensional attack capabilities and mobility,” Moon said. “Regardless of the circumstances, our marines will be able to respond to any situation with their superior abilities and carry out their missions to perfection anywhere.”

So what explains South Korea’s ongoing acquisition of these far-roving assets?

“There is an element of the big shiny toy and they may feel they should have this, as a top-10 economic power,” said the source. “After all, they can afford it.”

In 2020, South Korea was the 10th largest spender on defense in the world, with a budget of $45.7 billion, just behind Japan with a budget of $49.1 billion.

While the South Korean budget accords with its national status – it ascended to the G10 in the same year – this is big money. For example, Japan’s economy is more than three times the size of South Korea’s – $5 trillion, compared with $1.6 trillion.

As for the aircraft carrier, and South Korea’s ever-prickly relations with its neighbor, the source speculated about national rivalries. “Maybe it’s just because the Japanese have got one?” he asked.

On October 5, Japan conducted a test landing of US Marine F35s on the flight deck of its newly converted light aircraft carrier the Izumo.

However, a truly global naval capability would mean South Korea would need to upgrade its global communications – “How can Seoul send an encrypted signal to a submarine in the mid-Atlantic?” asked the source – and make basing or docking arrangements?

There is little sign of this happening. “The logistics space is less sexy than the shiny toy space,” the source said.

Japan’s so-called ‘helicopter destroyer,’ the Izumo, has been converted into a light aircraft carrier, a program South Korea aims to replicate. Photo: Wikipedia.

Toward strategic autonomy

A deeper reason may mix the political with the strategic.

The mentor of current President Moon was the late President Roh Moo-hyun (in office 2003-2008). Both their governments championed the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces from American to domestic command.

That process is underway and while progress is unclear, the transfer does not appear imminent.

While the weapons now being tested by and debated within Seoul are hardly relevant to “OpCon Transfer” – the focus there is on acquiring command, communications and control capabilities – these programs suggest a desire for strategic autonomy.

South Korea is almost as paranoid about the state of its alliance with the United States as North Korea is about the threat posed by the United States. Given this, the desire may have been reinforced by the unpredictable stance toward alliances held by the Donald Trump administration, and by the shambolic end to the US-led Afghan intervention under Joe Biden.

Chun, however, suggests there is another reason to muscle up the South Korean military and extend its operational ranges.

“We were a colony of Japan for 35 years but we were a fiefdom of China for 1,000 years,” said the ex-general, who formerly headed South Korea’s Special Warfare Command. “The average North and South Korean has no good feeling toward either, but a recent poll found that South Koreas favor Japan over China.”

Unlike Japan, South Korea has not joined the navy-centric, semi-formal “Quad” alliance that is led by the US and arrayed against China.

But Beijing’s increasing assertiveness may be changing long-held calculations and prompting Seoul to develop assets – intermediate-range ballistic missiles, SLBMs and F35 carriers – with operational ranges beyond the peninsula’s littoral.

“For South Korea to have a regional military capability is worthwhile in the eyes of South Koreans,” the retired general Chun said.