Space

South Korea’s new president seeks independent space agency, deeper US space cooperation

SEOUL, South Korea  — South Korea’s newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol will take office May 10 with a set of ambitious space projects aimed at making the country a major space power by 2035.

They include establishing an independent aerospace agency offering integrated management of civil and military space programs in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province, home to nearly 100 aerospace companies, and developing a high-power rocket for independent satellite launches in the near term and lunar and Mars exploration in the long-run. Early completion of the country’s own GNSS system, which is on track to launch a full-fledged service by 2035, is another mission the new leader wants to accomplish to bolster the nation’s economic and military prowess.

Yoon has also promised to facilitate the public-to-private transfer of space technologies, reform regulations and launch a space industry cluster to grow the country’s nascent domestic space industry. In line with this, the science ministry recently selected five universities that will be subsidized $4 million each over the next five years in return for running education programs designed to nurture skilled space engineers.

“Countries jockey for position in the space industry to secure a competitive edge in national security and future competitiveness,” Yoon wrote in his election manifesto, pledging to make South Korea “one of seven most advanced space powers in the world by 2035.”

To bolster international collaboration, the new president will seek to expand South Korea’s role in NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program and seek collaboration with other space powers. In line with this, Yoon’s right-hand man, Rep. Park Jin, recently visited the United States and discussed the issue of expanding South Korea’s role in the Artemis program with U.S. officials, according to a local broadcaster, JTBC. Park, a four-term lawmaker, is the new president’s handpicked candidate for his administration’s first foreign minister.

“Both sides reached a consensus that South Korea and the United States need to explore deeper technological cooperation in the aerospace sector through the Artemis program,” Park told JTBC.

Another reason for Yoon to deepen space cooperation with the U.S. is to deter the increasing military provocation of nuclear-armed North Korea, which drew international condemnation recently with a series of missile tests. The North is also likely to conduct an underground nuclear test this month. Yoon believes the bilateral space cooperation would ensure more thorough surveillance of North Korea’s military activities. He seeks “faster and wider” deployment of reconnaissance satellites for closer monitoring of North Korea’s military activities. 

The defense ministry recently signed a contract with SpaceX to launch five spy satellites by 2025, with the first launch on a Falcon 9 rocket by the end of 2023. Once in orbit, the satellites will enable South Korea’s military to observe the nuclear-armed neighbor’s key military facilities every two hours with 30-50 centimeters resolution imagery. 

But, according to election pledges, Yoon wants them to be placed in orbit earlier and to launch more reconnaissance satellites to ensure strong deterrence against North Korea’s continuing provocations.

On top of this, Yoon has openly supported South Korea’s participation in the working groups of the Quad —a U.S.-led regional forum that includes Australia, India and Japan —and additional deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system here. With these issues on the table, Yoon will host a May 21 summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Seoul. 

U.S.-based think tank National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) said in a March 24 commentary that Yoon’s top foreign policy priority appears to be “strengthening relations with the United States and continuing the transformation of bilateral cooperation into a comprehensive strategic alliance.” Key to this transformation is “moving beyond military cooperation and expanding economic and technical cooperation,” the institute said.

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