How S.Korea Dropped the Ball in Space Development

North Korea has become the 10th country to succeed in putting a satellite into orbit, comfortably pipping South Korea to the post. It follows the U.S., France, Japan, China, the U.K., India, Israel and Iran.

Although the satellite aboard the rocket was a rudimentary device, there is no doubt that the North’s ballistic missile technology is now a force to reckon with.

Exports believe South Korea is 7 to 10 years behind North Korea in rocket technology. The South failed twice to launch its own rocket, the Naro, and the third attempt has been postponed several times. Even if the South succeeds in launching the Naro next year, the technological gap will not narrow because Seoul has not yet mastered the technology for the first-stage booster and relies on Russia to supply crucial components.

Out of 150,000 parts that go into the Naro, 120,000 are Russian-made and only around 30,000 homegrown.

As of 2010, South Korea's GDP is 39 times bigger than North Korea’s and its per-capita income 19 times greater. According to the national competitiveness ranking for 2012 by the Swiss business institute IMD, South Korea ranks No. 5 in terms of scientific competitiveness and No. 2 in the number of patent filings for every 100,000 people. In short, it dwarves North Korea in the area of business, commercial science and technology, but past and present governments in Seoul have taken their eye off the ball in rocket technology.

The main stumbling block to South Korea's rocket development has been U.S. restrictions on the maximum range of the South's missiles. The restrictions, agreed decades ago and revised recently, have hindered the South in developing not only long-range missiles but space rockets. Even during the development of the Naro, U.S. officials visited the space center here several times to inspect whether any missile components were used to produce the second stage of the rocket.

In retrospect, South Korea has missed significant chances several times to leap forward in rocket development. It succeeded in developing its own surface-to-air missile in 1978. But following the assassination of former president Park Chung-hee, his successor Chun Doo-hwan unilaterally relinquished missile development plans to strengthen ties with Washington.

As a result, South Korean rocket scientists who had returned from abroad to participate in the missile development, all went their separate ways again. In 2002, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute developed its own liquid-fueled rocket technology but showed little will to improve its power. The South Korean government was only anxious to flaunt the rocket program to counter the North's missile development, and ended up turning to Russia and depending on foreign technology.

Japan started developing its own rocket in 1954, the first one standing only 23 cm high and weighing just 200 g. It was aptly dubbed the "pencil rocket." But through countless failures Japan in 1970 became the fourth country to place its own satellite in orbit.

The godfather of China's rocket program was Qian Xueshen, who returned to his home country from the U.S. in 1955. Former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao always went to Qian's home every Lunar New Year's Day to pay their respects for his contributions to his country and also visited him several times when he fell ill. Overseas-educated Chinese scientists returned to China in droves, and their contributions amid ample state support led to Beijing's strength in space technology. This shows how enlightened China's leaders are in terms of science and technology.

But the South Korean budget for space development is W240 billion (US$1=W1,074) and only one department in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is in charge of managing it. It is embarrassing how backward the country is compared to North Korea in this area. The time has come to set new goals and lay out a new game plan for space development. Most importantly, the attitude of the country's leaders needs to change.

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 17, 2012 14:33 KST