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Unintended Consequences: Proliferation in South Korea

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(Posted March 6, 2001)


Seoul’s fledgling space program has accelerated with a move to abandon a 1979 agreement with Washington that limited missile development. Motivated by economic, security and nationalistic concerns, Seoul is pursuing a highly indigenous space program ­ one that could defend the peninsula while lessening Seoul’s dependency on the United States. South Korea’s late entry into Northeast Asia’s space race will spur commercial competition and may trigger increased regional missile proliferation. Ironically, the problem may not be so much North Korea as South Korea.


On December 19, 2000, South Korea’s Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST) announced that a budget of 5.15 trillion won (US$4.26 billion) will be invested in the development of a national launch vehicle with the capability of lofting 1 ton of payload to (presumably Sun-synchronous) orbit by 2010.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is studying the KSLV family of launch vehicles, derived from its KSR series of sounding rockets introduced in 1993. 



In mid-January, South Korea announced it intends to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) later this year, allowing Seoul access to rocket technology from other MTCR members. Two weeks later, the South Korean Ministry of Science and Technology announced the site chosen for South Korea’s new civilian space center, an island on the coast of South Cholla province, that will be the base for satellite launches.

Seoul’s entry into the MTCR ends five years of negotiations with Washington to release South Korea from a 1979 memorandum of understanding governing missile development. Washington has long feared a South Korean ballistic missile program would accelerate missile proliferation in Northeast Asia and undermine regional security. Rather than stem missile development in Northeast Asia, the memorandum simply prompted South Korea to carry out a clandestine missile program as North Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan developed missile and rocket technology.

Surrounded by economic and strategic competitors with developed commercial and ballistic missile programs, Seoul lobbied intensely for an end to the restrictions and access to missile technology from other MTCR nations. South Korea seeks technological and economic benefits from a purely indigenous space program, one that could eventually defend the entire peninsula while decreasing economic and security dependency on the United States. While South Korea’s late entry into Northeast Asia’s space race has been termed a largely commercial enterprise, ultimately it may do just what the United States has long feared ­ spur regional ballistic missile development.

Limiting Seoul’s Reach

Seoul has long seen North Korea’s significantly longer missile range as a serious threat to national security. However, a 1979 memorandum with Washington held Seoul’s missile range to 180 km, far short of most targets in the North. Washington imposed and maintained strict controls to avoid sparking an arms race in Northeast Asia. In return for acceding to these terms, Washington offered Seoul missiles and assistance in other defense areas.

Not only did Washington fear North Korea’s potential reaction to expanded South Korean missile ranges, but also the U.S. government worried that China or even Japan would view the escalating tensions as a threat and accelerate their own missile programs. Since 1995 South Korea has actively sought to abandon the 1979 memorandum and join the MTCR, a Washington-sponsored initiative that allows for missiles with a range up to 380 km or even more by limiting the weight of the warhead.

Despite the apparently inevitable acceleration of Northeast Asia’s missile race, Washington agreed to formally abandon the 1979 agreement in early January 2001, predicating its decision on several factors.

First, despite restrictions on Seoul, North Korea continued to develop longer-range ballistic missiles, launching a three-stage Taepo Dong 1 in August 1998. Pyongyang’s program was driven by more than simply a desire to militarily counter the South, but to increase its strategic position in relation to allies China and Russia and foes Japan and the United States.

Second, South Korea argued that the restrictions on its commercial space program were a serious impediment to economic competitiveness. The agreement did not just limit Seoul’s military missile program, but also limited its commercial space development and restricted access to foreign rocket technology. Seoul contended that to remain competitive in the international aerospace and electronics industries, particularly against neighboring Japan, South Korean companies needed the technological spin-offs from a domestic space program.

Third, and perhaps most important, Washington lifted restrictions to gain access to South Korea’s active missile development program. South Korea’s domestic missile and nuclear programs in the 1970s triggered Washington’s initial restrictions. By 1978, South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) already had succeeded in converting U.S.-supplied Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles into ballistic missiles with ranges between 150 and 250 km.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, South Korea continued to develop and refine indigenous ballistic missiles, testing the Hyon Mu NHK-A several times. Because of restrictions from the 1979 memorandum, South Korea’s ballistic missile program remained nearly as mysterious as North Korea’s. Washington determined that Seoul’s membership in the MTCR, which had the potential to stoke missile competition in Asia, would at least give Washington closer and greater control over Seoul’s missile program.

Abandoning the Restrictions

The January 2001 agreement between Washington and Seoul to formally abandon the 1979 memorandum will significantly accelerate Seoul’s civilian and military space programs. South Korea’s membership in the MTCR will increase the allowable range for ballistic missiles to 300 km with a 500 kg payload, though reports suggest Washington has allowed Seoul unlimited range on cruise missiles if the payload is closely restricted.

For South Korea, this offers several advantages. It gives South Korea access to technology formerly off-limits. South Korea intends to use the fall-off technology from its space programs to boost the competitiveness of its domestic technology and aerospace industries, in addition to saving money on domestic space launches.

Seoul is positioning itself as an inexpensive option for launching Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Sun-synchronous orbit satellites. Such satellites usually carry remote sensing or observation equipment and operate between 150 to 900 km above the Earth’s surface. This would place South Korea’s burgeoning space program in direct competition with several existing or developing programs, including those of France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia and Ukraine.

It will be some time before South Korea’s launch facilities become economically competitive with many of these other programs. The late start and dearth of qualified Korean scientists will limit the speed and development of South Korea’s satellite launch technology. While the launch center won’t be cost effective initially, the government is going ahead with the project for the technological spin-offs and security benefits, according to the Korea Development Institute.

Ultimately, the main benefit of South Korea’s space program is strategic. It will bring South Korea closer to parity with North Korea’s missile capabilities. This allows Seoul greater flexibility in its policy toward North Korea. Seoul can deal with North Korea from a position of strength and demonstrate to the South Korean people that their government is not taking a purely placating approach to the North. However, this may offer ammunition to more militant factions in Pyongyang who feel North Korea’s economic cooperation with the South has already progressed too far.

Seoul has long been endangered by North Korea and fully dependent on the United States for defense. Seoul and Washington have long had differences on North Korean policy. The missile program is part of a series of moves to diversify Seoul’s defense supplies and advance its domestic defense technology and capabilities. In moving toward a more independent defense posture, Seoul gains independence in its foreign policies as well.

With an enhanced ballistic missile program and a satellite-launching program, which can be converted to longer-range ballistic missile technology, Seoul gains leverage against surrounding nations. Seoul has also made it clear it will now extend the range of its domestic ballistic missiles to the limits of the MTCR, bringing into range all of North Korea and large areas of China and Japan.

Often characterized as a minnow between two whales, South Korea sits between traditional rivals China and Japan, both with developed space or ballistic missile capabilities. Japan’s commercial rockets could readily be converted into ballistic missiles with ranges rivaling Washington’s ICBMs, according to a report by Selig Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. By developing its own medium-range ballistic missile capabilities, South Korea enhances its ability to counter future threats from its neighbors.

The Regional Impact

While North Korea remains the top priority of South Korea, Seoul’s expanded missile program is eliciting unusual responses in Northeast Asia. The deafening silence from Pyongyang suggests the two Koreas may cooperate in the distant future.

The January 2001 announcement that South Korea would expand its missile range and develop satellite-launching capabilities was met with silence from North Korea. During most previous rounds of missile talks between Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang unleashed strident rhetorical attacks against South Korea’s militaristic intentions, even intoning ironically that South Korea was masking a long-range ballistic missile program in its commercial satellite-launching program.


Since 1992, seven South Korean satellites have been launched.

Three flew atop European Ariane 4 boosters, two on U.S. Delta 2s,
one on a U.S. Athena 1 and one on an Indian PSLV.

Pyongyang’s newfound silence probably raised eyebrows in Seoul, Washington and Japan. North Korea recently suggested it would be willing to trade its long-range missile program for assistance with satellite launches. Seoul’s planned space facilities on the island of Oenardo may offer an inter-Korean solution to North Korea’s long-range missile threat.

For Washington, this could be a mixed blessing. While reducing the North Korean missile threat, which includes exports to the Middle East and South Asia, it would weaken Washington’s influence in inter-Korean relations.

The potential for inter-Korean cooperation on space technology, however, is likely to elicit concern in Tokyo. Japan looks to a reunified Korea as a potential threat to its national interests. Japan and South Korea harbor longstanding animosities and remain close economic competitors. Tokyo worries that inter-Korean cooperation could lead to the removal of U.S. troops from the Peninsula, placing Tokyo at the front line against its other regional competitor – China.

As Tokyo casts a wary eye on the prospect of Korean reunification, an even more distressing concept is a unified Korea with an advanced missile capability. Seoul is still in the early stages of developing long-range rocketry, but North Korea has already tested – albeit with questionable results – a three-stage missile capable of reaching most of Japan. Japanese and South Korean national interests and competitive instincts are no longer held in check by the common threat of Soviet advances into Asia.

Seoul’s late entry into space threatens to tilt the balance of power in Northeast Asia. In the long term, Tokyo may change its foreign and defense policy to respond. This in turn could exacerbate tensions with Beijing. China currently keeps most of its missiles trained on Taiwan but may find Japan a more immediate threat if Tokyo develops ballistic missiles. The United States will also find its security interests increasingly stressed by the regional proliferation of missile technology.

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