South Korea shoots for the stars in Asia’s space race

South Korea and the US pledged to expand their defence alliance into orbit at their inaugural joint space forum this week, as the countries seek deeper co-operation in response to emerging threats from adversaries including North Korea and China.

Seoul and Washington agreed to bolster their partnership in areas spanning defence, commerce and civil space exploration. It comes as South Korea has raised its ambitions for independent launch and surveillance capacities, amid an intensifying Asian space race.

“Space is becoming increasingly militarised and weaponised . . . turning [it] into a giant geopolitical chessboard,” South Korean foreign minister Park Jin told the forum on Monday.

Seoul has made significant progress in space. An uncrewed South Korean lunar orbiter is examining the Moon’s surface for future landing sites, and last year Seoul launched a satellite on a domestically developed rocket, a feat achieved by six other countries — Russia, the US, France, China, Japan and India, which in August became the first country to land a probe on the Moon’s South Pole.

Yoon Suk Yeol, the country’s president, has declared ambitions to land a spacecraft on the Moon by 2032 and on Mars by 2045. Seoul aims to have 130 satellites in space by 2030, a six-fold increase on today’s number.

Last week Seoul announced it planned to launch a military spy satellite, its first, by the end of the month.

“For a country that has had a modest history in space, South Korea is poised to take a tremendous leap,” said Sam Wilson, senior policy analyst at The Aerospace Corporation.

Despite their close security ties, the US has historically hampered South Korea’s space ambitions. In 1979, Washington insisted on guidelines to limit Seoul’s ability to test missiles and rockets and restricted its shared missile technology for fear of helping Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons.

That forced Seoul to turn to Moscow as its principal partner in space in the 2000s. Russia and South Korea developed a launch vehicle, the Naro-1, which reached low Earth orbit in 2013.

But Washington progressively lifted its restrictions between 2017 and 2021, paving the way for Seoul to deploy a satellite from its own Nuri rocket last year. South Korea cancelled a series of satellite launch contracts with Russia after western sanctions were imposed on Moscow in the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Seoul and Washington’s burgeoning space alliance is part of a wider US-led effort in the region to expand and deepen defence ties to curb China’s growing assertiveness. The US and Japan this year announced their security treaty would extend into space, with Washington’s protection covering Japanese satellites against Russian and Chinese missiles and laser weapons.

Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the US wanted to facilitate South Korean ambitions of a network of military reconnaissance satellites. “Washington likely also saw a more capable South Korean missile force as potentially yielding dividends down the line with regard to China,” he said.

Seoul has also recognised the importance of satellite communications, said Brigadier General Kim Hong-chul of South Korea’s Joint Forces Military University, citing the example of the war in Ukraine.

“South Korea considers missile warning and tracking capabilities for its missile defence systems as the most important space assets to establish in the Korean theatre,” he said. “Space is now recognised as an essential element in theatre military operations.”

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Pyongyang, which in August failed to launch a spy satellite into orbit for the second time, has reacted angrily to space co-operation between Washington and Seoul. State media in October accused the US of using “space militarisation” as a means to attack North Korea and secure “world supremacy”.

The South Korean government also said it had detected signs that North Korea was receiving technical assistance from Russia to launch a military reconnaissance satellite after Kim Jong Un met Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East in September.

Yang Uk, a weapons expert at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, said the increasing sophistication of North Korea’s missile programme meant South Korea should not rely on US and Japanese space-based tracking and warning systems.

“Our allies first have to analyse the information and then take a decision as to whether to share it with us,” said Yang. “To deal with the North Korean nuclear threat, we need our own eyes in the air.”

Wilson of The Aerospace Corporation said South Korea’s planned equivalent of the US-operated Global Positioning System satellite network, known as KPS, could complement US surveillance capabilities.

“An interoperable KPS-GPS capability, with South Korea hosting GPS military payloads on KPS satellites, would offer heightened precision over North Korea and swaths of Russia and China,” said Wilson.

The KPS network would also allow South Korean companies to exploit opportunities in the space economy, which US investment bank Morgan Stanley has estimated will grow from $350bn in 2022 to more than $1tn by 2040.

“Satellite imagery, which is currently mostly used for military purposes, is increasingly being applied to various private industries such as city management, ports and agriculture,” said Seo Dong-chun, chief financial officer of Contec, a South Korean company offering ground station and satellite imagery services.

About 300 private South Korean companies, ranging from start-ups developing composite materials to rocket engine manufacturers Hanwha Aerospace and Korea Aerospace Industries, were involved in the development of the country’s space launch capability. The government has set up a series of public-private partnerships to transfer knowledge and expertise to the private sector.

“After the US started to give funding to private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, it became clear the private sector could be active in space research and development,” said Seo. “We need to catch up fast.”

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong and Song Jung-a in Seoul