South Korea to launch new rocket as arms race builds across Asia

The 1.5-tonne satellite on Nuri is expected to enter into orbit about 600km to 800km above the Earth. - KOREA AEROSPACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE/AFP

SEOUL (Bloomberg): South Korea is set to launch a home-developed Nuri rocket Thursday (Oct 21) showing global powers a leap in aerospace technology that can be used for both commercial and military purposes.

President Moon Jae-in plans to watch the launch of the three-stage liquid-fuel rocket carrying a 1.5-tonne dummy payload, which is set for liftoff at about 4pm local time from the Naro Space Center on the country’s southern coast. South Korea sees the programme as bolstering its competitiveness in 6G communications and helping it place more eyes in the sky as rival North Korea adds to its arsenal, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The launch comes months after the US removed limits on South Korea’s rocket development in place since the Cold War. South Korea has recently made advances in both its military missile capabilities and civilian program, playing catchup with more advanced space programmes in China and Japan.

While South Korea doesn’t have a nuclear arms programme, support for them is higher among the public than in Japan -- another US ally dependent on America for deterrence, where opposition is strong after America dropped two atomic bombs at the end of World War II.

One of the top contenders for South Korea’s presidential race next March, conservative Hong Joon-pyo, told Bloomberg in September it might be time for the country to have nuclear weapons. That could add a twist to the Nuri programme, which is currently for civilian use.

"If you just replace the satellite with a warhead, South Korea’s rocket becomes an ICBM,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary of South Korea’s presidential Blue House.

Washington has welcomed the advances in South Korea’s space programme. The Seoul government in May joined Nasa’s Artemis programme, which plans to return humans to the lunar surface.

The 1.5-tonne satellite on Nuri is expected to enter into orbit about 600 to 800km (375 to 500 miles) above the Earth. It would be a major advancement over South Korea’s two-stage Naro space vehicle built with domestic and Russian technology, which was hit by delays and two failed launches before a successful flight in 2013.

South Korea has invested approximately US$1.8 billion into the project since 2010, well before Moon took office in 2017. South Korea eventually plans to send a spaceship to the moon by 2030, after aiming to send a probe there for more than a decade.

Just hours before Moon witnessed the test of South Korea’s new submarine-launched ballistic system last month, North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles off a train for the first time. On Tuesday, Kim Jong-un’s regime fired off its first missile from a submarine in about five years.

China on Saturday sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station, while its reported launch of a hypersonic missile into orbit has raised concerns that US rivals are quickly neutralising the Pentagon’s missile defences even as it invests tens of billions of dollars in upgrades.

As regional security concerns heat up, South Korea has been pushing to fully activate its "425 Project” of high-resolution surveillance satellites as early as next year. The programme would have civilian and military applications to watch the Korean Peninsula including North Korea -- and possibly China.

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