It’s Not About the Moon: The Military and Economic Logics to South Korean Space Exploration

By and | May 31, 2016 | No Comments

The launch of South Korea's "Naro-1" rocket in late November 2012. | Image: CCTV

The launch of South Korea’s “Naro-1” rocket in late November 2012. | Image: CCTV

When business and military interests partner up, people can become rather uncomfortable. It is understandable; however, there is a long history of integrated business and military agendas driving innovation and supporting economic growth, too. Take for instance the Internet, super glue, and digital photography, all of which began life somewhere between the military and business realms. 

In pursuit of the South Korean national interest and with at least one eye on this type of new economic frontier, since the 1990s Seoul has allocated considerable capital and expertise to the country’s space program. In this essay, Clint Work and Kim Seon-hee of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington provide a critical overview of the latest developments in this area, highlighting the military and economic logics behind South Korea’s desire to take on humanity’s last frontier. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

It’s Not About the Moon: The Military and Economic Logics to South Korean Space Exploration

by Clint Work and Kim Seon-hee1)Clint Work and Kim Seonhee are both doctoral candidates at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their piece is a part of the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute’s Space Security Initiative (SSI). The SSI aims to develop a standing forum in the Pacific Northwest of academics and professionals with an interest in matters of outer space security. Its work focuses on technology development, industrial strategy, domestic politics, international relations, military security, and environmental protection.

On April 27, the United States and the Republic of Korea signed a Framework Agreement for Cooperation in Aeronautics and the Exploration and Use of Airspace and Outer Space for Civil and Peaceful Purposes. The agreement not only signals the broadening and deepening of the US-ROK alliance but the ongoing, deliberate, and relatively rapid development of South Korea’s space program. However, while the agreement and related press coverage centers on future cooperation in civil space, it is more than a stand-alone accord between allies solely for peaceful purposes. Rather, it is situated within a larger diplomatic setting marked by repurposed alliances and Seoul’s efforts at regional balancing. Furthermore, beyond its efforts toward human space flight and deep space exploration, South Korea’s space program has been driven by additional, interconnected motivations, namely: to transform its military into a more technology-intensive, civilian-dominated, and jointly interoperable force structure; as well as to promote growth in and harness the capacity of private sector advancements in space technology.

New Phase of Space Relations? | The recent agreement between the US and South Korea indicates that, after years of relatively limited cooperation in space, the allies have entered a decidedly new phase. Given the longstanding alliance between the two countries, it is somewhat remarkable just how restricted previous cooperation had been. James Moltz notes several reasons for this. First, the disparity in technological capacities in space between the US and ROK meant the US had little to gain. Second, the US had serious concerns regarding missile proliferation and export controls on sensitive technologies.

On the latter point, the US feared that the ROK would use advancements in space launch capability to extend the range of their missiles (similar to present concerns regarding Pyongyang’s satellite launches), thus subverting agree-to restrictions and spurring possible instability on the peninsula. Also, Washington could not be certain that American technology secured through co-production or technology transfer agreements would not be exported to other countries, both undermining the market share of US firms and proliferating sensitive military-related technology. However, as the US-ROK Alliance has deepened, former missile-range restrictions have been lifted, and Seoul has achieved notable success in rapidly developing its space infrastructure, new forms of cooperation have become possible. This is not to mention, of course, Pyongyang’s continued development of its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

Thus, the agreement is embedded within broader regional dynamics. Whereas the Park Administration has leaned toward Beijing in some areas, the space agreement can be seen as Seoul’s effort to tilt the other way toward Washington, and, by extension, the trilateral US-ROK-Japan relationship. The 2014 intelligence sharing pact between Seoul and Tokyo (pushed by Washington) and the first official joint US-Japan-ROK ballistic missile defense exercises scheduled for next month alongside the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises, indicate a strengthening of trilateral ties. South Korea’s remote sensing satellites will take on an increasingly important role in such cooperation.

Consequently, despite the ostensibly civil and peaceful nature of the recent space agreement, it is important to understand its larger regional context. We turn now to the ROK space program more specifically, and to several key factors that have propelled it, namely: the spillover effects of the US-led Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and US military space doctrines; shifts in US global strategy; and advancements in South Korea’s own IT and high-technology sectors and the search for new opportunities for economic growth.

The Republic of Korea Air and Space Operation Center at Osan Air Base in March 2015. | Image: Wikicommons

The Republic of Korea Air and Space Operation Center at Osan Air Base in March 2015. | Image: Wikicommons

Future-Oriented Warfare, ISR, & Space | As Chang-hee Nam writes, in the mid to late 1990s, a small group of researchers within the Korean Institute of Defense Analysis (KIDA) became keenly interested in RMA studies emanating from the Pentagon, and their practical application in US wars in the Balkans and, later, Afghanistan. Briefly put, RMA involved the transformation of a country’s military strategy, tactics, and organization through adoption of advanced technologies, enhancing the awareness, responsiveness, mobility, and interoperability of different armed services. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability is an integral element of RMA, and outer space a particularly important domain within which ISR assets operate. Interest in the theory and practice of RMA led some of these South Korean researchers to take on a lead role in the RMA Promotion Office (군사혁신기획단) within the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND).

Their cutting edge research catalyzed efforts within each service of the Korean military, including the ROK Air Force (ROKAF). In 1998, the ROKAF opened the Space Weaponry Branch in the Weapon Systems Bureau of the Air Force Studies and Analyses Wing, and, in September 2007, replaced it with the Space Development Branch within Air Force Headquarters. In addition to signing a memorandum of understanding with the civilian-run Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) and the Astronomical Center, in support of the construction of the Naro Space Center and the first Korean astronaut program, the ROKAF began to recruit personnel with space expertise as well as send a handful of officers each year to train at the US Air Force’s National Security Space Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In short, the ROKAF and the larger Korean defense community saw the importance of space in improving ISR capability as part of its emergent strategy regarding future warfare. The development and deployment of different types of remote sensing and communications satellites figured prominently in their thinking.

The future-oriented planning in the various armed services and the MND was eventually brought together in the Defense Reform Plan 2020, released in September 2005 under then President Roh Moo-hyun. Although the subsequent Lee Myung-Bak Administration would adjust the plan’s more ambitious goals as well as its cost, the importance of the military use of space remained in play. It has been repeatedly and more systematically featured in successive ROK defense white papers in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, as well as in the 2014 National Security Strategy.

Seoul’s move to incorporate advanced technologies and new defense doctrines in outer space was also driven by changes in US global strategy and their direct effect on the US-ROK alliance. In the wake of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration’s 2004 Global Defense Posture Review (GDPR) stressed the uncertainty of a rapidly changing security environment and the attendant need for more flexible, mobile, and smaller force deployments. In regard to Korea, this shift was manifest in plans to realign United States Forces Korea (USFK) troops south of the Han, and redeploy a certain number off the Korean Peninsula. Attendant to this process, the US began to pressure Seoul to take on a greater role in the alliance.

More concretely, this played out in plans for the transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the ROK military from the US to South Korean command. The transfer required, among other things, the development (once again) of Seoul’s ISR capabilities, including advanced communications and reconnaissance satellites to monitor North Korea more effectively, provide early warning capabilities that are crucial in crisis situations, and increase the interoperability of ROK forces. Moreover, form the American perspective, ROK upgrades in space could eventually provide “surge” capabilities for the alliance The indefinite delay of OPCON transfer was, in part, a result of Seoul’s lack of progress in these areas and continued dependence on US satellites, which is readily apparent in the area of missile defense.

Technology and Economic Growth in the 21st Century | Lastly, Seoul’s current efforts in space have a clear economic logic. Indeed, the relatively rapid development of the ROK’s space program since the late 1980s has followed a familiar South Korean pattern of targeted state industrial policy and, more recently, the emergence a state-private sector nexus. As Daniel Pinkston shows, soon after the current Park Administration entered office they issued a directive and later a Medium- and Long-term Space Development Plan that aimed to foster the growth and competitiveness of ROK firms in satellite service markets for imagery, communications, and applications.

The ROK views space technology as the leading industry of the 21st century that will help the country climb the technology ladder, create and expand high-tech firms, improve quality of life, and have ripple effects throughout other industries. Over the next several years, the size of the Korean market for space services is expected to triple, the number of venture capital firms involved to grow from six to roughly 50, and the number of jobs to increase almost five times to 4,500.

Earlier this year the Park Administration announced it would allocate 746.4 billion won to space, a notable 20 percent increase over last year’s budget. Despite (or because of) deteriorating economic conditions, the increased funding is a way “to secure a new growth engine,” according to Hong Nam-ki, Vice Future Minister at the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning. Action plans include crafting a number of satellites for public use and national security; reorganizing state-led satellite development plans by fostering partnerships between state and local think tanks and small and medium-sized firms; and providing 286.6 billion won for marketing and technology support for companies in the satellite sector.

KOMPSAT 3-A | Image: Wikicommons

KOMPSAT 3-A | Image: Wikicommons

A brief sketch of some of the ROK’s most advanced communications and earth-observation satellites reveals the interconnected factors examined above. Koreasat 5 (or Mugungwha 5), part of the larger Koreasat series, is the ROK’s first dual-use commercial and military communications satellite. Manufactured by Alcatel Alenia Space (now Thales Alenia Space) and launched in August 2006, it is jointly owned and operated by the ROK’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and the KT Corporation.

On the one hand, Koreasat 5 offers high-quality data and video services to KT’s customer base throughout East Asia. On the other hand, it fits within the ROK military’s effort to build an infrastructure for military support operations in space and offers a secure route for critical communications throughout the armed forces. “Koreasat 5 will be the essential equipment for the future combat system in Korea,” said Major General Chi Gue Rim of the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It will play one of the most important roles for military operations in the Asia-Pacific area.” Koreasat 5 and the ADD’s military space communications facility in Taejon are part of the push toward greater interoperability and “net-centric” capabilities (see: RMA spillover). These developments are featured in the previously mentioned defense white papers, specifically the sections on the ROK’s “Satellite Communications System” and “Defense Information Communications Network.”

The ROK’s multipurpose earth observation satellite program (its KOMPSAT or Arirang series) demonstrates a similar trajectory. The KOMPSAT program was begun in order to develop and enhance the ROK’s independent remote sensing capabilities (for civil and military purposes), gain understanding of systems engineering for indigenous satellite development, transfer technology to domestic firms, and promote the satellite industry for both domestic and export markets. Although at the outset KARI worked alongside foreign partners, with each successive satellite it took on a more expansive role and passed off greater responsibility to Korean firms, such as Korean Aerospace Industries and Satrec Initiative (founded by a group of former KAIST engineers).

In reference to Kompsat 3, 5, and 3A (launched in 2012, 2013, and 2015 respectively), the KARI website notes that: “except for some parts, the design, assembly and testing…were all conducted in Korea.” For Kompsat 3A, “the domestic industry took full responsibility for the development of the main body as part of technology transfer for expanding the industrial base in Korea.” Moreover, each of the satellites, which together operate on a “mutual support basis,” signaled an upgrade in South Korea’s ISR capability.

Kompsat 3 provided the ROK its first observation capability of less than 1 meter resolution; Kompsat 5 its first all weather observation satellite (equipped with synthetic aperture radar) that offers the ROK armed forces day-and-night, all weather imaging for targeting, reconnaissance and surveillance; and Kompsat 3A its most precise earth observation capability (at 55cm resolution) and first Infra-Red Camera that can sense heat on the ground both day and night, with obvious application for monitoring DPRK missile and nuclear tests.

Conclusion | The foregoing analysis has stressed the specifically military and economic logics driving South Korean efforts in space, particularly in respect to its increasingly sophisticated satellites. To be fair, though, there are also civil space applications to almost all of the ROK’s space assets and programs. For example, the ROK’s remote sensing satellites listed above are used in a wide range of areas such as national land management, natural disaster monitoring, marine resource management, agriculture and forestry, environmental weather observation. In addition, it is KARI and other non-military government institutions that manage satellite imagery, not the ROK armed forces.

Thus, the recent agreement between the US and ROK was correct to stress potential cooperation in civil space in areas like the ROK’s lunar exploration project and the future exploration of Mars. Nevertheless, as Choi Gi-hyuk, director of KARI’s lunar exploration program, remarked, even the peaceful, scientific elements of the ROK’s space program are “closely linked with national security,” and will have “a direct and indirect impact” on the nation’s technological progress. Although the official English-language announcement does not mention military applications, the press release from South Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP), explicitly highlights the dual-use nature of South Korean space technology.

In sum, while Seoul may or may not put an astronaut on the moon in coming years, we can be sure that its extant military and market motivations will continue to be the primary drivers of its efforts in space. No matter how fascinating and high tech deep space exploration is, a divided peninsula, North Korean missiles, and a sagging economy will likely mean that guns and butter ultimately determine the path ahead.


1 Clint Work and Kim Seonhee are both doctoral candidates at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their piece is a part of the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute’s Space Security Initiative (SSI). The SSI aims to develop a standing forum in the Pacific Northwest of academics and professionals with an interest in matters of outer space security. Its work focuses on technology development, industrial strategy, domestic politics, international relations, military security, and environmental protection.

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