By Teke Wiggin
Russian technological assistance has boosted South Korea's space program. As an indirect consequence, it has also provoked North Korea.
Governments have been quick to condemn the North for its space program as a thinly-veiled ballistics missile program. But they have been far less critical of South Korea's space program, which like the North, bears the label of ``civilian."
It is perfectly rational for the North to conclude that South Korea's program will serve a military function. After all, the 1999 U.S. Cox report censured China for using U.S.-furnished commercial space technology to bolster its ballistic missile program and ended joint space-projects between the two countries.
A report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars by Selig Harrison said that Japan's commercial rockets could readily be converted into U.S.-caliber ballistic missiles. U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee he believed North Korea genuinely attempted a satellite launch but added that ``the technology is indistinguishable from intercontinental ballistic missiles."
In other words, even if a space rocket's payload is a commercial item, that rocket employs precisely the same technology used for an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Russia has provided South Korea with this kind of rocket, so it can launch its Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1). With this assistance, South Korea hoped to acquire intimate knowledge of the sensitive Russian technology for itself, so it could build its next space vehicle, the KSLV-2, without any foreign assistance.
Russia, for sensible reasons, has refused to let this happen by severely restricting Korean scientists' access to the technology.
Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) scientists have expressed frustration as a result. This is despite the Technology Safeguard Agreement (TSA) Russia and South Korea signed explicitly banning technology exchanges over the Russian-provided KSLV-1 first-stage rocket.
Had Korea planned on reaping the same sort of technological benefits China had from U.S. space-technology assistance? Yes.
Was Russia taking its cues from the Cox Report when it stipulated the TSA and stuck to it? Yes.
Nonetheless, joint construction with Russia has already helped South Korea ``a great deal" to "pick up" new technology according to head of South Korea's Naro Space Center Min Kyung-ju in an interview with the JoongAng Daily. Russia is contracted for at least one more rocket launch.
More aggressive measures also appear to have been taken in South Korea's effort to acquire first-stage rocket technology.
In April of 2009 notorious arms dealer Yun Ju-whan, a Korean-American who said he has been ``the largest one-stop supplier" of military equipment for South Korea over the past 30 years, was charged by the U.S. for trying to obtain Russian booster rocket technology. Court papers said the technology was meant for nothing less than the KSLV-2 rocket Korea wants to build domestically.
Despite the well-known links between commercial-rockets and ICBMs, North Korea remains subject to a double standard that condemns military potential in its program but accepts or altogether fails to acknowledge it in the South's.
The West regards South Korea's program as ``transparent." But there's a reason why the U.S. originally opposed South Korea's rocket ambitions and still won't lift a cap it placed on South Korean solid-fuel rocket size: satellite launching capability means ICBM capability.
Against this political backdrop, we can see how Russia's instrumental role in South Korea's program must be quite aggravating to the North: South Korea now has a serious shot at beating the North in a domestic satellite launch and the construction of an ICBM-convertible rocket.
Furthermore in 2001 Kim Jong-il selected Putin as the leader to whom he would propose a deal that offered the discontinuation of his rocket program in exchange for North Korean satellite launches executed by outside powers.
A few years later Russia proceeded to provide that technology ― what Kim said he'd stop developing ― to South Korea. In the most autocratic state in the world a slight of that kind has a lot to bear on policy-making.
This could prove advantageous: Russia could exploit Kim's smarting ego and offer space assistance to the North as a ``carrot" for denuclearization.
The appeal to the North would be threefold.
It would restore Kim's face after the Russian snub, diminish the perception of a double-standard and provide North Korea with reliable satellite launches, something it still can't do on its own.
This would be a strong brokering chip if presented as part of a larger denuclearization aid-package endorsed by other six-party members. If realized, it would place a major power as mediator of the peninsular space race opening North Korea's program up to at least some outside scrutiny and halting sensitive rocket-technology development.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly recognized the potential of such a deal in the past.
Still, outsourcing to Russia would deprive the North of the prestige it sees to be gained by becoming the first Korea to launch a domestically-produced rocket. That means all of this could only work if the South also agrees to halt rocket development. Would South Korea be willing to make this concession?
The writer is a freelancer based in New York and a former college English teacher in Korea. His articles have been published by the L.A. Times and The Korea Times. He recently helped write a paper on Russia's relations with the two Koreas for a think tank based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.