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

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

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - South Korea is set to launch a home-developed Nuri rocket on 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 5pm local time (4pm Singapore time) from the Naro Space Centre on the country's southern coast.

The launch had tentatively been scheduled for an hour earlier, but officials said they faced delays in inspecting valves on the craft. Weather conditions were also being monitored amid reports of high winds in the upper atmosphere.

“The rocket itself has no issue,” Yong Hong-taek, first vice-minister of science and technology, told a briefing at the space centre.

Overseen by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the 200-ton rocket was moved to its launch pad on Wednesday and raised into position.

“All preparations like umbilical connection and confidential inspection have been done,” the Science and Technology Ministry said in a statement.

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 (ICBM).

The launch comes months after the United States 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 programme, playing catch-up with more advanced space programmes in China and Japan.

While South Korea does not 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 last month 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 Mr Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary of South Korea's presidential Blue House.

South Korea's first homegrown space rocket "Nuri" being transported out of the assembly building to a launch pad at the Naro Space Centre in Goheung, South Korea, on Oct 20, 2021. PHOTO: KOREA AEROSPACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE/AFP

Washington has welcomed the advances in South Korea's space programme. The Seoul government in May joined the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration'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 600km to 800km 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 (S$2.42 billion) into the project since 2010, well before Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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.