SEOUL: South Korea launched a satellite into space from its own soil for the first time yesterday amid increased tensions after archrival North Korea accomplished a similar feat and was condemned by the United Nations.
The S. Korean rocket blasted off from a launch pad in the southwestern coastal village of Goheung. Officials told cheering spectators minutes later that the rocket delivered an observational satellite into orbit. Officials expected to know today whether the satellite is operating as intended. A crowd gathered around a TV at a train station in downtown Seoul to watch the launch. “I am proud we have entered the ranks of satellite powers,” office worker Hyun Day-sun said.
The launch is a culmination of years of efforts by S. Korea — Asia’s fourth-largest economy — to advance its space program and cement its standing as a technology powerhouse whose semiconductors, smartphones and automobiles command global demand. N. Korea’s long-range rocket program, in contrast, has generated international fears that it is getting closer to developing nuclear missiles capable of striking the US.
S. Korea’s success comes amid increased tension on the Korean Peninsula over North’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.
Washington and Seoul have called North Korea’s rocket launch a cover for a test of Pyongyang’s banned ballistic missile technology.
Pyongyang recently acknowledged that its long-range rockets have both scientific and military uses, and Kong Chang-duk, a professor of rocket science at S. Korea’s Chosun University, said the same argument could apply to the South.
Seoul may eventually be able “to build better missiles and scrutinize Pyongyang with a better satellite,” Kong said. “... There are dual purposes in space technology.” Both Koreas see the development of space programs as crucial hallmarks of their scientific prowess and national pride, and both had high-profile failures before success. S. Korean satellites were already in space, launched from countries including Japan, the United States and Russia. Seoul tried and failed to launch satellites on its own in 2009 and 2010; more recent launch attempts were aborted at the last minute.
US experts have described the North’s satellite as tumbling in space and said it does not appear to be functioning, though Pyongyang has said it is working.
Pyongyang’s state television made no mention of the S. Korean launch, but about an hour after liftoff it showed archive footage of N. Koreans cheering the three-stage rocket from last month. Images from the launch frequently appear in N. Korean propaganda.
The satellite launched by Seoul is designed to analyze weather data, measure radiation in space, gauges distances on earth and test how effectively their devices installed on the satellite operate in space. S. Korean officials said it will help them develop more sophisticated satellites in the future.
South did need outside help to launch the satellite: The rocket’s first stage was designed and built by Russian experts. Pyongyang built its rocket almost entirely on its own, S. Korean military experts said earlier this month after analyzing debris retrieved from the Yellow Sea in December.
Kim Seung-jo, S. Korea’s chief space official, told reporters that his country should be able to independently produce a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit by as early as 2018.