Winning: South Korea Joins The Space Race

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August 1, 2022: In June South Korea became the 11th nation to use a locally built SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) to put a locally built dummy (test) satellite into orbit. The South Korean SLV is officially the KSLV-II but commonly referred to as the Nuri. This is a 200-ton three stage rocket that can put 2.6 tons of satellite into a 300-kilometer-high LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or 1.5 tons into a higher (800 kilometers) LEO. Nuri was first tested in 2021 but the third stage failed to function correctly. The second test was the recent one and it was a success. Both tests were launched from the South Korean Naro Space Center.

South Korea spent $1.7 billion developing Nuri and will continue development to enable the SLV to carry heavier loads into higher orbits. Development of the current Nuri involved building smaller (56-ton) SLVs as test vehicles. Initially South Korea will put civilian earth observation satellites into orbit but these can also observe North Korea. Eventually South Korea will put locally built military surveillance satellites into orbit.

The other nations to build and launch satellites are Russia (1957), the United States (1958), France (1965, Japan (1970), China (1970), Britain (1971), India (1980), Israel (1988) and North Korea (2012).

South Korea had already become the tenth largest economy in the world and the tenth largest exporter of locally produced weapons. South Korea could have built SLVs and space satellites earlier were it not for an agreement with the United States to not develop ballistic missiles in order to encourage North Korea to limit or eliminate its own ballistic missile program. That did not work, which was made dramatically clear in 2010 when an unprovoked North Korea attack involved shelling a South Korean island near the North Korean maritime border and sinking (via a submarine-launched torpedo) a South Korean warship. North Korea denied any responsibility but examination of the shells and the torpedo used identified North Korea as the culprit. This ended over a decade of expensive South Korean efforts to appease their northern neighbor. The United States agreed that the ballistic missile restrictions agreement was not working and that was the end of any restrictions.

It didn’t take South Korea long to catch up with and surpass North Korean ballistic missile tech. In 2017 South Korea conducted a successful test of a locally made ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. The new missiles carry a half ton warhead. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. A similar test in 2015 involved a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers which came to be known as the Hyunmoo 2C. That test ended decades of restrictions (at the behest of the United States) on South Korean ballistic missile development. South Korea has never released much information on how many ballistic and cruise missiles it now has, but at times has indicated that they are aimed at North Korean targets. These South Korea missiles can be launched from anywhere in South Korea and hit any area in North Korea. Apparently North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his various underground headquarters are prime targets. Unlike North Korea, which has chemical weapons and, eventually, nuclear bombs for its warheads, South Korea is restricted to conventional explosives. But even with this such missiles can do considerable damage to underground facilities and major above-ground facilities.

Until 2012 South Korea and the United States had an agreement that limited South Korean made ballistic missiles to 300 kilometers range. In return the United States pledged prompt and substantial military support in the event of an attack by North Korea. In 2012 that treaty was modified because of growing aggression by North Korea and a rapidly growing North Korean arsenal of ballistic missiles. The 2012 amendments allow for South Korean missiles with a max range of 800 kilometers. The original restrictions were a gesture to North Korea in an effort to halt a ballistic missile arms race. That was an arms race South Korea was better equipped, with tech and manufacturing capability to develop and build ballistic missiles and SLV rockets.

North Korean poverty had already diminished the threat of smothering the South Korean capital Seoul with artillery fire because of North Korean failure to maintain its tube artillery and rocket launchers. North Korea was also unable to replace their aging, and much less reliable, supplies of artillery shell and rockets. Tube artillery whose recuperator seals aren’t replaced for 10-15 years can only fire one round before requiring major maintenance to get that gun operation again. More explosive things happen with old artillery munitions, particularly those stored in non-climate-controlled caverns in Korean climates.

Back in 2012 the South Korean military also called for over $2 billion to be spent on missiles during the next five years and this plan was largely approved and successfully implemented. This was part of an effort to develop the capability to quickly weaken the North Korean artillery and missile forces in any future war. The South Korean plan included the purchase of over a thousand new ballistic and cruise missiles. These are aimed at specific North Korean missile launchers and artillery positions. In the event of a war, the South Korean missiles can be quickly launched and most North Korean missile and artillery weapons destroyed. That would mean less destruction in South Korean territory. The North Korea plan had always been to start any future war with an enormous bombardment of South Korea using shells, rockets, and missiles. Most would be aimed at the South Korean capital, and largest city, Seoul, contains 48 percent of the national population and 21 percent of GDP.

Nearly all the $2 billion was spent on missiles made in South Korea. At the same time the government also revealed the existence of some of these locally developed missiles that had been kept secret. This included a new cruise missile and ballistic missile that were ready for service. South Korea is usually secretive about its battlefield missiles although some details do leak. In 2009 South Korean media reported that a new cruise missile, with a range of 1,000 kilometers, had secretly entered production in 2008. The missile, called Hyunmoo 3, has since been superseded by the Hyunmoo 3C missile, which has a range of 1,500 kilometers and is being deployed along the North Korean border, aimed at ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, and other strategic targets to the north. The longer range of the Hyunmoo 3C enables it to hit any target in North Korea and is apparently intended to knock out transportation and supply targets deep inside North Korea. With a range of 1,500 kilometers the missile could also hit targets in China and Russia.

Since the 1980s the United States has been discouraging South Korea from developing long range ballistic and cruise missiles. Despite the U.S. refusal to approve or cooperate, South Korea developed a 180-kilometer range ballistic missile (Hyunmoo 1) and a 300 kilometer one (Hyunmoo 2) in the 1980s. Both are about 13 meters (40 feet) long and weigh 4-5 tons. By 2001 South Korea accepted the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and thus agreed not to build ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers. Hyunmoo 1 and 2 used a design based on that of the U.S. Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile, which South Korea used for many years and mastered the manufacturing technology for.

Cruise missiles are simpler technology, and apparently the Hyunmoo 3 is made entirely with South Korean developed components. Like the original American Tomahawk, Hyunmoo 3 appears to be about 6 meters (19 feet) long, weighs 1.5 tons, has a half ton warhead, and is launched from hidden (in the hills facing North Korea), and probably fortified, containers. North Korea has over 600 ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea but many of them are so old that their reliability in action is questionable.

In addition to its locally made ballistic missiles, in 2011 South Korea moved some of its American made ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) guided missiles close to the North Korean border. ATACMS is a 610mm rocket that fits in the same size container that normally holds six 227mm MLRS rockets. The ATACMS version in South Korean service has a range of 165 kilometers. That makes it capable of reaching many targets in North Korea but not the capital (Pyongyang, which is 220 kilometers north of the DMZ). There is a version of ATACMS with a range of 300 kilometers but South Korea does not have any. ATACMS is fired from the American MLRS rocket launcher. South Korea only has 220 ATACMS missiles. All of them have cluster bomb warheads. Half of them were unguided and have a range of 128 kilometers. The others have smaller warheads, GPS guidance, and a range of 165 kilometers. This is apparently the version moved close to the border, in order to make the North Koreans nervous. South Korea originally bought ATACMS in 1998, to have a weapon that could go after distant North Korean artillery and large concentrations of tanks.

Despite American opposition South Korea began developing, but not mass-producing, ballistic missiles in the 1970s. South Korea certainly has the technical expertise and manufacturing capability to produce a more modern ballistic missile with a range of 300 kilometers. After 2010 the United States was no longer trying to restrict South Korean missile development or production.

One negative side-effect of this missile program is that it puts parts of Russia and China at risk as well. Both nations are considered traditional threats to Korea and Russians and Chinese leaders are well aware of this. They also realize that South Korea is capable of developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons, and doing so quickly.

 


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