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South Korea Attempts First Space Launch
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Peter Crail

South Korea carried out its inaugural space launch attempt Aug. 25, seeking for the first time to place a satellite in orbit using its own rocket. South Korean officials described the launch as “partially successful,” as the on-board satellite overshot its intended orbit. South Korea is planning another attempt next year, Education and Science Minister Ahn Byong-man said at a press conference following the unsuccessful orbit.

The launch comes nearly four months after North Korea unsuccessfully attempted to orbit its own satellite and faced punitive measures from the UN Security Council for contravening prior restrictions on its development of missile-related technology. (See ACT, May 2009.)

Although the international community has not raised similar alarms regarding the nature of Seoul’s space program, South Korea’s linkage between its missile aspirations and North Korean military capabilities has raised concern.

The South Korean rocket, called the Naro-1, was a cooperative effort between Seoul and Moscow, based on a space technology agreement the countries signed in 2004. Russia’s Khrunichev space center constructed the rocket’s liquid-fueled first stage, based on its Angara rocket design. The solid-fueled second stage was built by South Korea.

South Korea originally approached the United States for assistance with its space program but was rebuffed. Although a bilateral agreement between the two countries provided for the development of rockets for civilian purposes, the United States maintained a policy of not directly contributing to additional space vehicle programs. (See ACT, March 2001.)

Because of the dual-use nature of such rocket programs, Russia’s cooperation with the South Korean space program falls under multilateral restrictions on the sharing of rocket technology. Both countries are participants in the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal grouping of 34 countries aimed at preventing the proliferation of missiles and related technologies that can be used to deliver nonconventional weapons.

That arrangement places limitations on the type of rocketry and rocket technology that states can share. The first-stage rocket provided by Russia falls into the MTCR’s most heavily controlled category of technologies, those that can carry a payload of 500 kilograms over a distance of 300 kilometers. Under the MTCR guidelines, there is a “strong presumption to deny” requests to transfer such hardware. Such transfers are permitted if the supplier and recipient ensure that the transferred goods are used only for nonmilitary purposes and are not retransferred.

MTCR Letter and Spirit

Richard Speier, who was on the U.S. team negotiating the MTCR, said in an Aug. 12 e-mail that if the Russian assistance applied only to the rocket hardware, it “would just barely meet the letter but not the spirit of the MTCR.” But he said the transfer of production facilities and technology was prohibited.

Moscow and Seoul signed a technology safeguards agreement in 2006 to ensure that prohibited technologies were not transferred. According to the South Korean press, Moscow sought such an accord at that time at the urging of the U.S. government.

The undertakings pursued by the two countries in 2006 appear to have satisfied any U.S. concerns. Dennis Wilder, National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs under President George W. Bush, said in an Aug. 18 e-mail that “the Bush Administration was comfortable with the agreements that were made with the Russian and South Korean governments.” Wilder, who is now at the Brookings Institution, added that Seoul was transparent in its space launch efforts and worked with Washington to address any proliferation concerns.

South Korea maintains that the technology transferred was limited. A South Korean diplomat said Aug. 24 that the Russian first stage was provided “ready-made” to South Korea and did not include accompanying production technology.

Seoul originally scheduled the inaugural launch for 2005, but setbacks in negotiations with Russia led to a number of delays. The launch was also postponed several times in recent months.

The launch occurs at a time when tensions between North and South Korea appear to be easing, as Pyongyang has taken steps to improve relations between the two countries. On Aug. 13, North Korea released a Hyundai executive it had held for more than four months over accusations that he criticized the North’s political system while working in an inter-Korean industrial zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong. Pyongyang also sent a delegation to the Aug. 23 funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That delegation met with the current president, Lee Myung-bak. It was the first meeting between Lee and North Korean officials since he took office last year.

Pyongyang has made similar positive gestures to Washington in recent weeks.

Pyongyang issued a warning, however, that it is prepared to compare the reactions of the world community to South Korea’s space launch with that of its own in April. The North Korean Foreign Ministry said in an Aug. 10 statement that the reaction “will once again clearly prove whether the principle of equality exists or has collapsed.” Following the April launch, the UN Security Council prohibited North Korea from carrying out any additional rocket launches of any kind.

North Korea gave no immediate response following the South Korean launch.

U.S. officials have differentiated between the two countries’ space programs. Department of State spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Aug. 18 that, in “stark contrast” to North Korea, which has not adhered to its international commitments, “[t]he South Koreans have developed their program in a very open and transparent way.”

Increasing Range

Although Washington has indicated that it is not concerned about Seoul’s civilian rocket efforts, South Korea has sought to extend the range of its missiles in response to advances in North Korea’s own delivery systems.

During the 1990s, following developments in North Korea’s military capabilities, South Korea lobbied the United States to revise a 1979 agreement limiting the range of its missiles to 180 kilometers. (See ACT, October 1998.) One of Seoul’s arguments for ending the restrictions was North Korea’s first attempted space launch, in 1998, using a version of its Taepo Dong-1 missile, which has a range of about 2,000 kilometers.

After years of negotiations, South Korea announced in 2001 that it would adopt new guidelines extending the permitted range of its missiles to 300 kilometers and allowing the development of civilian rocket boosters with unlimited range, which the 1979 agreement had prohibited. (See ACT, March 2001.) The United States announced at that time that it would permit South Korea’s immediate entry into the MTCR.

The 300-kilometer-range restriction was consistent with U.S. policy regarding MTCR admission, which maintained that members other than the five recognized nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) must forgo the possession of missiles beyond the regime’s threshold.

U.S. Mistrust

A former State Department official familiar with the South Korean-U.S. negotiations said Aug. 25 that Washington did not trust Seoul to abide by the guidelines on missile limitations. During the late 1990s while negotiations on extending the limitation of South Korean missiles were ongoing, press reports claimed that Seoul had already developed missiles that went beyond the 180-kilometer range. Both countries denied such reports.

In recent years, the South Korean press has reported that Seoul is developing cruise missiles that can reach well beyond the MTCR range. The Korea Times reported Aug. 17 that South Korea has begun deployment of a 1,000-kilometer-range cruise missile and is developing a 1,500- kilometer-range system.

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told reporters in July, “We thought of studying and developing cruise missiles, and the U.S. is aware of that.”

The Washington Post quoted Wilder Aug. 18 as stating that there is “some concern” that Seoul was not adhering to agreed limitations on cruise missile development.

State Department officials contacted in August declined to comment on the U.S. missile agreement with South Korea.

Posted: September 4, 2009