South Korea Launches Space Rocket: Pyongyang Silent

How long until Pyongyang highlights the double standard of international reaction?
January 30th, 2013

South Korea says its third attempt at launching a rocket to put a satellite in space has been a success, with the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1) departing the Naro Space Center at 4pm local time today.

Following a string of technical errors, failed launches and delays, South Korean scientists and technicians watched the launch intently today to see if it would succeed in delivering its payload into orbit. About an hour after takeoff, Republic of Korea Science Minister Lee Ju-ho declared the launch a success.

Reacting to the news today, outgoing President Lee Myung-bak hailed South Korea’s first successful launch of a space rocket as the first step toward opening an “era of space science” for the country.

For its part, North Korea remained silent. Pyongyang Korean Central Television [KCTV] made no mention of the South Korean launch, but about an hour after liftoff it showed archive footage of North Koreans cheering the North’s three-stage rocket from last month.

Seoul-based North Korea expert Steve Chung today told NK NEWS that Pyongyang will now likely cite the South Korean rocket launch to justify its own rocket program.

It’s expected that the North will make use of South Korea’s satellite launch as a way of justifying the reasoning behind its own Dec 12th launch. And since South Korea’s rocket launch is so similar to the North’s launch in December, Pyongyang now has a good excuse to disrespect the new round of UN sanctions, being able to claim unfair treatment despite similar intentions (the peaceful exploration of space).

South Korea’s success comes amid increased tension on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s threat to explode its third nuclear device. Pyongyang is angry over tough new international sanctions over its Dec. 12 rocket launch and has accused its rivals of applying double standards toward the two Koreas’ space programs.

Talking of the “complicated” situation on the Korean peninsula, a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman told reporters today that Beijing was in close consultation with all relevant parties, pointing out that it had “taken note of the report on the Republic of Korea’s successful rocket launch”. While he added that China opposed any moves that might “escalate tensions”, it wasn’t clear if he was making any reference to South Korea’s launch.

Compared to North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle system, South Korea’s KSLV-1 is unique in that the rocket combines an indigenously designed and manufactured second stage with a foreign made liquid-fuelled first stage. This joint design emerged thanks to South Korea’s close work with the Khrunichev State Space Science and Production Center of Russia, an partnership formed after years of space collaboration in other areas like Russia’s assistance in launching an ROK satellite in 2006 and even a Korean astronaut in 2008.

The muted reaction of the international community to South Korea’s launch comes in stark contrast to the hysteria that emerged in April and December of last year when North Korea conducted high profile Unha-3 rocket launches. Back then, Japanese naval boats were waiting to shoot down Pyongyang’s rocket if it strayed into their territory, while Manila had called on Pyongyang to abandon the launch, making strong complaints about the prospects of the DPRK rocket entering its airspace.

North Korea will be almost sure to pick up on all of this in the coming days, pointing out what it sees as a double standard in international reaction to the two launches. However, a key differentiating factor that Pyongyang will be sure to omit relates to UN Security Council Resolutions against North Korean launches.

While the DPRK launched its rockets in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, South Korea has on the other hand has been developing its rocket program well within its peaceful right to space exploration. And although North Korea claims its Unha program also falls within the realm of a peaceful right to space exploration, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program gives few on the UN Security Council cause for confidence when it comes to this line of reasoning.

South Korea has already started work on a 100% domestically developed system that aims to have a 75 ton rocket engine produced by 2021. Perhaps unsatisfied by repeated problems in getting the joint Russian-ROK rocket into space, researchers working on the new program will nevertheless be happy to see South Korean success today.

Picture Credit: Flickr creative commons

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.