Korea’s Dual Space Odyssey: South Advances Independently, North Shifts Focus, And Nuclear Ambitions Heighten Regional Tensions

Over the years, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, signalling its determination to develop nuclear capabilities. Since the breakdown of the Six-Party nuclear talks in 2009, North Korea has reactivated nuclear facilities producing fissile material for weapons.

North Korea has declared the successful launch of a military reconnaissance satellite on its third attempt within six months. According to state media, the rocket took off at 10:42 pm local time (13:42 GMT) on Tuesday from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The official report from the state-run news agency KCNA indicated that the rocket precisely positioned the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite into its designated orbit approximately 12 minutes after liftoff.

In response to North Korea’s recent launch, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has effectively deployed South Korea’s inaugural military reconnaissance satellite, marking an escalation in the space race on the Korean Peninsula. The satellite from Seoul was launched from the Vandenberg US Space Force Base in California at 10:19 AM local time on Friday, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX overseeing the mission. Notably, the rocket prominently featured the word ‘KOREA’ on its exterior during the launch.

Space Development History of Korea

South Korea

For an extended period, Washington, a staunch ally of South Korea, has expressed reservations about Seoul’s efforts in rocket development, fearing that these initiatives could transform into ballistic missiles, potentially heightening tensions with North Korea. In the 1970s, South Korea agreed to restrict the range of its surface-to-surface missiles, a pact made in return for technological support from the United States. As time passed, these limitations were progressively relaxed, and by 2021, they were entirely removed.

In 2004, facing challenges in securing a deal with U.S. suppliers, South Korea opted to purchase modified liquid-fuelled Angara boosters from Russia for the first stage of its Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) I, also known as the Naro 1. While domestic technology was utilized in the Naro 1’s solid-fuelled second stage and the payload fairing, it faced significant setbacks. The initial launch in 2009 failed due to a payload fairing malfunction, and the 2010 flight ended in an explosion minutes after liftoff. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Naro 1 successfully placed a satellite in orbit.

The latest addition to South Korea’s space capabilities is the Nuri, the country’s current satellite launch vehicle (SLV). Launched in October 2021, the Nuri is a three-stage rocket entirely manufactured in South Korea. In contrast to its predecessor, the Nuri is described as more conventional, with no reliance on foreign components. Despite a successful liftoff in its first launch, it failed to place a dummy satellite into orbit. However, subsequent launches, including the latest on May 25, have been more successful, placing eight satellites into orbit.

The Nuri weighs approximately 200 tons and is considered sizable compared to North Korean designs. South Korean officials stated that the Nuri is designed to carry 1.5-tonne payloads into low earth orbit at altitudes ranging from 600 to 800 km (370 to 500 miles). This development represents a significant step forward in South Korea’s independent space launch capabilities, marking a departure from its earlier reliance on foreign technology and collaboration.

In the previous year, South Korea’s military conducted initial tests of an independently developed solid-fuelled rocket. The purpose of this rocket is to deploy small satellites into low Earth orbit, primarily for surveillance applications. The shift towards smaller, solid-fuelled launch vehicles is motivated by their perceived simplicity and cost-effectiveness when compared to their liquid-fuelled counterparts.

While South Korea has historically relied on foreign launchers to place satellites into orbit, recent developments indicate a move towards greater self-reliance in space technology. Notably, the military engaged Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch its inaugural communications satellite in 2020, and SpaceX is slated to launch five South Korean spy satellites, starting from the current year.

Looking ahead, South Korea has ambitious plans to establish a satellite network serving various purposes, including regional positioning systems, next-generation communications, and military reconnaissance. This marks a strategic initiative to enhance the country’s capabilities in space technology and reduce dependence on external providers for satellite launches.

North Korea

North Korea’s journey in space development began with the Taepodong-1, a three-stage liquid-fuelled booster. However, after its first launch failure in 1998, this design was not pursued further. Unlike other countries that iterate on launcher designs, North Korea tends to create new designs for each attempt, often without extensive static engine testing.

The subsequent launcher, the Unha, featured engines believed to be derived from the Soviet-era Scud missile and an upper stage with similarities to the Iranian Safir rocket. Components from various countries, including Britain, Switzerland, the United States, China, and the former Soviet Union, were found in Unha debris collected by South Korea in 2012.

Despite having some success with the Unha, North Korea seems to have shifted focus to the Chollima-1. This new design appears distinct from its predecessors, with no apparent commonality in design elements. Analysts suggest that the Chollima-1 likely utilizes dual-nozzle liquid-fuelled engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Some experts speculate that these engines may be derived from the Soviet RD-250 family.

The Chollima-1 experienced failures in its first two launches, with the second stage failing to start in the initial attempt on May 31, leading to a crash into the Yellow Sea. Despite setbacks, the Chollima-1 is thought to be a medium-lift launcher designed to place small satellites into low Earth orbit. It is slightly smaller than South Korea’s Nuri, with an estimated launch mass of around 150 tons. North Korea’s recent focus on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has also contributed technology to its space program.

Since 1998, North Korea has conducted eight satellite launches, with at least two successfully reaching orbit. International observers noted that one satellite appeared to be under control, but there was uncertainty regarding whether it transmitted any signals. Eventually, both satellites re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

The recent efforts by North Korea indicate a shift in focus towards deploying operational satellites, according to Jonathan McDowell. He suggests that the program has moved from an experimental phase of simply getting something into orbit to a more advanced phase where operational satellites are being considered. Initially, North Korea is likely to focus on low Earth orbit reconnaissance satellites. However, McDowell anticipates that, in the future, North Korea may also launch geostationary communications satellites, indicating a more ambitious and mature phase in the country’s space program.

North Korea’s Nuclear Tests

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), stands out as one of the most heavily militarized nations globally. The country has embraced a ‘military first’ philosophy, also known as Songun, which places the military at the forefront of North Korean society, using it as a solution for social, economic, and political challenges. This approach, coupled with advancements in nuclear weapons and missile capabilities under President Kim Jong-un, has transformed North Korea from a regional threat to an international concern for peace and stability.

Over the years, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, signalling its determination to develop nuclear capabilities. Since the breakdown of the Six-Party nuclear talks in 2009, North Korea has reactivated nuclear facilities producing fissile material for weapons. Reports from the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency suggest that North Korea has successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads, making them small enough to be mounted on long-range ballistic missiles. The country has consistently tested missiles of various ranges and capabilities, demonstrating progress in the reliability and precision of its missile forces. In 2022, North Korea conducted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests for the first time since 2017, raising concerns about its ability to target previously unreachable areas, including the US homeland. In 2023, the country has continued these ICBM tests, along with a record number of other missile tests. In August, North Korea claimed to have conducted a simulated tactical nuclear attack on South Korea. Additionally, the unveiling of a submarine reportedly capable of launching nuclear weapons has added to the apprehensions.

In response to North Korea’s actions, South Korea took measures by suspending parts of the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in 2018 between Kim Jong Un and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo stated that North Korea’s actions demonstrate a lack of willingness to adhere to the agreement designed to reduce military tension and build trust on the Korean peninsula. The suspension included the restoration of aerial surveillance and reconnaissance activities along the border to monitor for signs of North Korean provocations. China, North Korea’s primary ally, expressed the view that it was in the interest of all parties to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. The situation heightened tensions in the region, with diplomatic and strategic implications for the involved countries.

Beyond nuclear capabilities, there are growing concerns about North Korea’s potential development of chemical weapons. The combination of nuclear weapons, advanced missile systems, and the reported capability to launch from submarines underscores the multifaceted nature of North Korea’s military ambitions and its implications for regional and global security.