NARO SPACE CENTER, SOUTH KOREA – As the seconds counted down, spectators gathered on a pebbled beach washed with turquoise seas on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
Nearby, in a park dotted with dummy rockets, TV viewing stands waited to capture the moment. Anxious officials hovered, ready to brief.
At precisely 4:00 pm, a thunderous rumble reverberated beyond a green headland. Slowly at first, then accelerating on a bright flare of fire, a 47-meter white rocket ascended into a perfect, near-cloudless sky.
The flare flickered high into the stratosphere as spectators let out cheers. Bare seconds later, all that could be seen in the skies over the Naro Space Center was a plume of smoke drifting high in the blue.
The country’s homegrown Nuri (“World”) rocket had lifted off.
“Today is a very monumental moment in our history of science and technology,” Minister of Science and ICT Lee Jong-ho told reporters at the site some minutes later as data was received. “We successfully launched Nuri … and reached our target orbit successfully, with a performance verification satellite.”
He added: “Now, the sky has opened for us!”
Indeed: South Korea has joined the global satellite launch race, with Nuri successfully placing a satellite in low-earth orbit, some 700kms up. Four micro satellites are expected to be released from the main satellite in the coming days.
The minister added that South Korea will, in August, launch a domestic Moon orbiter – albeit, using a US launch platform – and will also participate in NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission, that aims to (re)land on the Moon.
For this high-tech, G10 economy, long used to being the poor cousin to arch-competitor North Korea when it comes to rocket launches, it was a coming-of-age moment.
The successful launch marked Korea’s entry into the space race. But is also marked a step toward middle-power status, for it validated sovereign technologies that have potential use beyond satellite deployments.
Officials who briefed media at the launch site were keen to talk up the civilian use of the vehicle.
The aim of the Nuri program is, according to materials handed to reporters, “to acquire space transportation capabilities and nurture domestic system integration companies capable of providing broad-based services for launch vehicles.”
NASA programs spun off multiple technologies used in the civilian sphere, from Global Positioning Systems to LED lighting. Many space flight technologies, however, are dual-use, with applications in the military sphere.
South Korea’s current-generation ballistic missiles are short-range. The altitude Nuri’s engines propelled it to today is – speaking very roughly – the same altitude attained by an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM.
Civil-military connections exist across government agencies and commercial firms related to national missile and space programs.
The Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) which was responsible for today’s launch is also engaged in South Korea’s military satellite program. And affiliates of domestic conglomerate Hanhwa, which made several of Nuri’s components, are also supplying to national missile and military satellite programs.
But even if the launch demonstrates that South Korea is IRBM-capable, should it wish to develop that class of weaponry, questions hang over why – or even whether – Seoul feels the need to acquire such an asset given that its key enemy, North Korea, can be covered by extant short-range missiles.
Nuri leaves the world behind
Nuri blasted off today from a green gantry set on the launch pad at the Naro Space Center. Bookmarked by verdant, low hills tumbling into the summer Pacific, Naro is perched on the southernmost point of the peninsula – a location remote enough to satisfy onshore safety requirements.
With the rocket’s launch trajectory aimed over the ocean, a 44km-95km no-fly zone and a 24km-78km maritime control zone were established to allow the first-stage engine to drop safely.
Nuri is Korea’s first fully indigenous space vehicle. It’s predecessor, the Naro, used a Russian design for its first, booster stage.
While South Korea has been allied with the United States since its establishment as a state in 1948, it was Russia that gave the country a flying start in space technologies. After Moscow was unable to pay back Seoul loans in the early 1990s, it made payment in kind with weapons including tanks and missiles, as well as technical assistance in early-stage rocket development.
The Nuri program, set to run through to 2027, has a price tag of 1.9 trillion won ($1.4 billion), according to briefing materials handed to reporters.
Even so, Ministry of Science and ICT Spokesman Koo Hyuk-chae was careful to explain that today’s success, while an impressive achievement, does not imminently propels South Korea into the global satellite-lift market.
“There are many technological bottlenecks to go through, and many international regulations and agreements,” he said. “Korean space technology is at the beginning stage.… It is difficult to say exactly when we can deliver space services.”
The Nuri rocket is propelled by triple-stage, liquid-fuel boosters. The first stage weighs 300 tons, combining four 74-ton engines; the second stage is a 75-ton engine; the third stage is a seven-ton engine.
The full package hefts a 1.5 ton satellite 600-800kms above the earth’s surface.
A prototype Nuri was launched in October 2021 with a dummy payload on its nose. Though it reached its 700km orbital ceiling, its third stage burned out early, meaning the payload failed to reach orbital speed.
The stakes were higher this time. Nuri was loaded with a specialist monitoring satellite, which itself continued four micro, data-collection satellites designed by local universities, as well as a dummy satellite to maximize payload weight.
The flight was originally set for June 16, but was delayed until today due to issues with sensors, launch pad facilities and high winds.
According to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the engine assembly and mission control systems are built by, respectively, Hanwha Aerospace and Hanwha Defense. Hanwha is a conglomerate with significant presence in defense – from drones to rockets to self-propelled artillery.
“I would not say they are identical, but they are very close,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times of the interface between civilian and military rockets. “All the technologies that come out of a civilian rocket launch will influence military rockets and vice versa.”
Biden green-lights Korean missiles
Washington started applying ceilings on the range of missiles its junior ally could develop in 1979, in return for technology transfers. The original cap was for missiles with a range of 180km and warheads of 500kgs, though it was revised four times – to, in 2017, an 800km range and unlimited payloads.
The ceiling was finally scrapped in May 2021 when US President Joe Biden and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in summited in Washington DC.
“The termination of the guidelines reflects how the Biden administration lays importance on the South Korea-US alliance, as well as the trust in our country based on our national capacity, status and as a model nation for international nonproliferation,” Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense spokesperson said at the time.
Koo acknowledged that the process that enabled Nuri’s launch today “was related to the 2021 discussions.”
Indeed, much has sprung from the May 2021 agreement. Those developments suggest that the agreement had been long in gestation – and that Seoul was ready to hit the ground running as soon as the ink was dry.
In September 2021, South Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile. According to the Arms Control Association, the country is the first non-nuclear power to test such a home-grown capability. The underwater test was preceded by a test from a land-based facility, and then from an underwater barge.
Korea currently has one SLBM-capable submarine – a domestically produced vessel. It plans to possess three such vessels, each with six ballistic missiles aboard, according to AAA.
And in October 2021, the first Nuri had been tested.
When it comes to surface-to-surface missiles, South Korea possesses the Hyunmoo family of short-range ballistic missiles, as well as cruise missiles. (The nascent SLBMs are an outgrowth of Hyunmoo.) The latest Hyunmoo ballistic missile, its fourth iteration, has a reported payload of 2,500kg and a range of 800 km.
According to armscontrol.org, ballistic missiles with a range of less than 1,000 kms (620 miles) are considered short-range; medium-range are 3,000–5,500 kilometers (1,860-3,410 miles); and ICBMs travel more than 5,000 kms.
Ballistic missiles fly up in a parabola before descending. For an IRBM, an apogee of 600-800kms is required. This means that – at least technically – the Nuri, a civilian rocket system, potentially upgrades South Korea’s current domestic missile capabilities from SRBM to IRBM.
The engines of both Nuri and Hyunmoo are made by affiliates of Hanwha, following on from early work down by predecessor firm Samsung Techwin, which was acquired by Hanwha in 2014.
The scrapping of US requirements and achievement of “missile sovereignty” was a win for Moon. Moon was the protégé of late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun (in office: 2003-2008). Roh initiated “OPCON Transfer” – the shift of wartime operational control of South Korean forces from US to domestic command.
That process has always been murky in terms of both its conditions and its timeline. However, it is known that Seoul is required to have necessary assets in place before the handover can take place.
While South Korea has a powerful military in terms of its manpower and hardware, it customarily relied upon its senior ally for key ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets.
That makes military satellites a big hole for Seoul to fill.
Currently, according to online satellite tracking service NY20, South Korea has 25 satellites. The first was launched in 1992, the last in 2021. Among them, South Korea hefted its first military satellite – a French-built military communications satellite, Anasis-2 – into orbit using a SpaceX launch vehicle in 2020.
And in April of this year, Seoul reached an agreement with SpaceX to launch five military satellites by 2025. According to SpaceNews, the reconnaissance satellites, in low-earth orbit, will enable South Korea to snoop on North Korea every two hours.
The $970 million military satellite “425 Program” is a joint operation overseen by two government bodies: the Agency for Defense Development and KARI – the same body that oversees Nuri. Its developers are two local firms: Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Hanwha Systems.
Seoul’s “425 Program” was launched in 2018, according to local language media.
Seoul gazes beyond horizon for future defense
Seoul remains strongly committed to its alliance with the United States – a partnership that remained sacrosanct despite the stormy relationship between leftist Moon and unconventional US conservative President Donald Trump.
Current President Yoon Suk-yeol has made all the noises Washington DC likes to hear – including improving relations with Japan and championing values of democracy and human rights beyond Korean shores.
While South Korean reconnaissance satellites would usefully augment US (and Japanese) assets, it is not clear exactly what targets Seoul’s longer-range missiles, should it choose to develop them, might be aimed at.
The entire Korean peninsula, northernmost point to southernmost, extends 1,200kms, encompassing both Koreas. An IRBM’s range extends well beyond this backyard geography, hitting targets 3,000-5,000kms distant.
Even adding the 550km breadth of the Yellow Sea, a Korean-launched IRBM would be able to hit targets in most of China – a nation with strategic width of 5,250 km (3,250 miles) east to west and 5,500 kms (3,400 miles) north to south.
It would also be able to hit anywhere in Japan – which extends 2,361 miles (3,800 kilometers), north to South, and is 200 kms (124 miles) from the western coast of the Korean peninsula.
Given that missiles are delivery vehicles, one thing missing from Korea’s arsenal is nuclear warheads. North Korea has tested six atomic devices but South Korea is sheltered under the US nuclear umbrella.
Nuclear arms acquisition is not a significant public debate – at least, not for now. But other big ticket, ex-peninsula defense items are under consideration.
A South Korean light aircraft carrier is on the drawing board, though the case for such as expeditionary vessel has not yet been satisfactorily made, meaning its future is not assured.
A carrier, like an SLBM-capable submarine, is a survivable, “second-strike” weapon that can respond if land-based assets are taken out by enemy action. It is also a power-projection weapon that extends military reach.
But it is not just new equipment that is being developed; doctrine, too, may need to be upgraded.
Some advanced militaries are forward-postured, with assets deployed far beyond their own borders. The ongoing discussion and development of sovereign, over-the-horizon capabilities suggests Seoul defense planners are mulling several possibilities.
One: With national demographics plunging, the country needs high-tech weapons rather than manpower-intensive forces, and the research skills to develop them.
Two: Korean defense planners anticipate a tomorrow in which they join or support US allies in operations well beyond the peninsula.
Three: Looking forward, North Korea may not be the only threat Seoul will have to deter, and it wants capabilities that are independent of a mercurial, and potentially weakened, United States.
Four: Seoul desires fully sovereign weapons that contain no “black box” technologies held by foreign owners that could, feasibly, compromise their use in a crisis.
If these discussions are underway, they are underway behind closed doors. But there is little doubt South Korea seeks to raise its game globally.
“Koreans aspire to become a middle power but we are a country that has been peninsula-focused,” Chun said. “World circumstances are forcing us into a new realm and I think Korea has very little choice but to proceed into a bigger role in world affairs.”
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