A little more than a month after North Korea — to the surprise of many and the delight of very few — launched a satellite into space, South Korea can boast of a similar feat, with news reports stating that the country successfully sent its own satellite into orbit.
The moment was years in the making. South Korea’s last attempts ended in failure in 2009 and 2010 — a black eye for a country known as a technological powerhouse. Smartphones, semiconductors and automobiles have propelled South Korea to its place as Asia’s fourth-largest economy, and a gap of three years between launches indicated that it had put its space program on the backburner — perhaps not entirely voluntarily.
The United States, Seoul’s main military ally, had restricted South Korea’s space ambitions, concerned that a robust program might spur a regional arms race, particularly with North Korea. That eventuality didn’t appear to be in the offing, particularly after North Korea’s less-than-stellar showing in 2012 — a rocket disintegrating moments after liftoff that was the butt of jokes for weeks. Kim Jong-un, who’d been the supreme leader of North Korea for a total of two days at that point, was embarrassed before a global audience, and many thought that it was a sign that North Korea would not be a player in any arms race, nuclear or otherwise.
The successful launch in December changed the game. Despite U.N. sanctions, North Korea has insisted it will continue nuclear testing, stating that its long-range rockets are capable of carrying nuclear warheads as well as satellites and are able to reach the United States. Seoul condemned its neighbor’s ambitions but expressed a willingness to open a dialogue in hopes of forestalling even greater tension on the Korean peninsula.
With North Korea indicating that it will continue on its path of testing, and complaining that the West is “playing favorites” as far as which countries it will back in their space ambitions, opening a dialogue didn’t seem likely to succeed where U.N. sanctions — so far — have failed. As such, it is fortuitous (though likely not accidental) that South Korea has now shown it, too, can launch long-range missiles. One suspects Seoul prompted its rocket scientists into action with the tacit blessing of its allies — even the U.S., which had been hesitant before — as soon as the North Korean launch was confirmed. Additionally, South Korea’s partnernship with Russia played a role. They had an agreement under which Russia was to supply technology for the first stage of a maximum of three rockets. Wednesday’s launch was the final mission taking place under that aegis — adding another imperative for success.
Now that South Korea is a member of the elite group of nations with successful space programs, it remains to be seen where it goes from here, and if the United States, Russia, China, or other global powers will attempt to insinuate themselves into these affairs even more directly than they have already. It’s not hard to imagine that South Korea has or will receive some guidelines from its allies on just how ambitious it should aim to be. In the short term, it will be interesting to see how and if this monumental achievement can be leveraged against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Perhaps that offer of a dialogue seems a bit more appetizing to Pyongyang now than it did when it was first offered a few weeks ago.