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Aerospace & Defense

South Korea chases global ambitions in space and defense

Seoul builds up military tech from homegrown rockets to sub-launched missiles

The Nuri rocket blasts off from Naro Space Center, one of South Korea's southernmost points, on Oct. 21. The public sector alone will launch more than 100 satellites over the next decade, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that day. (Photo by Yonhap via Reuters)

SEOUL -- With help from the private sector, South Korea is forging ahead on its campaign to become a global space and military power in a bid to bolster defenses against the likes of North Korea and energize domestic industry.

On Oct. 21, South Korea launched its first fully homegrown rocket into the air. Though the Nuri rocket ultimately failed to accomplish its mission to deliver a dummy satellite into orbit, the launch marked a major step forward for South Korea's space sector.

"We will use our launch vehicles to achieve the dream of landing on the moon by 2030," President Moon Jae-in said following the launch.

While the government is in charge of the Nuri project, private defense contractor Korea Aerospace Industries was responsible for designing and building the actual rocket. A second launch carrying a real satellite is planned for May 2022. More than 100 satellites will be put into space over the next decade by the public sector alone, Moon said.

South Korea also plans to launch a solid-fuel rocket in 2024 as a vehicle for a 500 kg reconnaissance satellite. Its Ministry of National Defense successfully tested a solid-fuel engine in July after the U.S. lifted long-standing restrictions on the use of the fuel, which provides better thrust and is easier to handle than liquid propellants.

The South Korean military plans to use these rockets to place multiple reconnaissance satellites in orbit in order to better monitor North Korea. Together with Aegis-equipped vessels and drones, they will form part of Seoul's "kill chain" detection and preemptive strike system.

South Korea has rapidly increased its defense budget under Moon. Its five-year defense plan starting in 2022 calls for 315 trillion won ($266 billion) in total spending, putting it on track to overtake Japan in actual expenditures within years. The 2022 budget includes funds to develop an aircraft carrier capable of servicing U.S. F-35B stealth fighters.

The push for a stronger military is intended in large part to bolster South Korea's own defensive capability and curb its dependence on American forces here.

"Our biggest goal is to regain wartime operational control from the U.S.," a South Korean security source said. Moon had hoped to complete this process before the end of his term, though that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Improving South Korea's response against North Korean missiles is a key part of the puzzle. A stronger military will also give Seoul more negotiating power as well.

The Moon administration has said South Korea faces security threats from all directions, avoiding choosing a clear side in the growing Sino-American rivalry. It sees missiles and other cutting-edge technologies as a way to insulate itself from the vagaries of superpowers in the region.

South Korea is also eager to bolster its domestic defense industry. The country explicitly called for greater investments in military research and development under its five-year defense plan and will spend 7 trillion won in 2026 to develop cutting-edge arms using drone, space and machine-learning technologies.

The military is interested not only in manufacturing more arms at home, but also in exporting them. South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration helped stage this fall's biennial Seoul ADEX defense expo, which drew 440 companies from 28 countries.

"The defense industry will be developed into a key national growth engine that goes beyond national defense," Moon said at the event.

South Korea's defense equipment makers earned 15.3 trillion won in sales in 2020, up roughly 360% over two decades, according to the government. The country was already the world's ninth-largest exporter of major conventional weapons in the 2016-20 period in a ranking by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But South Korean advances in space and defense could spark a competing campaign to its north. The South's "unlimited, dangerous attempts to strengthen military capability are breaking the military equilibrium" on the Korean Peninsula, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said.

After South Korea successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Sept. 15, the North responded by firing its own short-range ballistic missiles. It has since continued to test-launch missiles. The country had also repeatedly tested intercontinental ballistic missiles in the past, claiming that they were part of a satellite launch program. The arms race on the Korean Peninsula could impact the balance of power in East Asia, forcing Japan and other neighbors to reevaluate their own defense strategies as well.

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