Has America Made South Korea The Next Space Superpower? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
South Korea has entered the space race! Join us... and explore!

For decades, the South Korea space program has been limited by international weapons tech rules... but, no more! In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at how South Korea emerged in 2021 as potentially the newest space superpower. And, with plans for the moon and beyond, it's already demanding attention!

Has America Made South Korea the Next Space Superpower?

Once, only two countries had the money, manpower, expertise, and desire to put people in outer space. Though the United States ultimately won the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s, both America and Russia have remained almost totally unmatched in space exploration ever since. But is it time for different countries to lead the way in the twenty-first century?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: has America made South Korea the next space superpower?

To answer this question, we first need to know exactly what a space superpower is. The three most expensive space agencies in the world are NASA, which maintains the lead by a huge margin; the China National Space Administration in second place; and Roscosmos in third. Close behind are the rest of the Big Six space agencies, the European Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Individual European countries like France and Germany also have costly space programs, but it’s ESA we know as a space power rather than France on its own.

Consistently, the twenty-first century has identified China as being the next “space superpower” as it continues to develop its space-faring capabilities to match the US and Russia. The US has barred China from the International Space Station, which is why China is currently at work building its own. But China isn’t really the next superpower; with plentiful nuclear weapons and the ability to put humans into outer space, not to mention the second-largest economy in the world, it’s already there. After China, who do we need to watch next?

In 2021, all eyes are on South Korea, thanks to the US agreeing to abolish missile restrictions that have been in place since 1979. The restrictions were placed years after South Korea signed the NPT, or Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which most of the world’s countries that didn’t possess nuclear weapons already agreed not to develop them. The aim of the NPT was total nuclear disarmament someday. As of 2021, that definitely hasn’t happened; we have more nuclear-capable countries now, including North Korea, and of course, India, itself a burgeoning space power. But South Korea isn’t yet a member of this club – although it did try and fail to develop nuclear weapons before joining the NPT. While South Korea currently maintains its commitment to not developing nuclear weapons, in the 2010s public opinion began to shift towards a more aggressive defense policy. One of the driving forces behind this change was North Korea’s construction and testing of numerous nuclear devices. The division of Korea in the 1940s has led to endless tension between the two countries, including an all-out war in the 1950s. South Korea does have access to many conventional weapons, including Short-Range and Mid-Range Ballistic Missiles, which it will now be free to develop in larger numbers, even if none are equipped with nuclear warheads.

But just because South Korea now can build missiles capable of hitting targets thousands of miles away doesn’t mean it will. The missiles it already had were more than capable of hitting any target in North Korea. So if renewing the Korean War were their aim it would have happened by now. A $13 billion cash injection to a new space program suggests that the country wants to use these newly-developed missiles primarily in non-violent, non-aggressive space missions, which will enable it to become an even more influential and technologically developed country than it already is. South Korea has been widely celebrated for decades as incredibly technologically advanced thanks to its high GDP and superfast internet, and this new space program will help it grow even more. Specifically, the new missiles are going to be used to launch satellites into space for both military and commercial purposes. Where the commercial sector is concerned, these satellites will be an early step in South Korea’s experiments with 6G internet. Yes, while much of the world is still uneasy about 5G being widely implemented, South Korea’s infrastructure is lightyears ahead.

This definitely won’t be South Korea’s first foray into outer space, though. The country has long had its own space agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute – KARI – established in 1989. So, before we look in detail at what Korea is hoping to accomplish in the future with relaxed restrictions, what landmarks has KARI already accomplished? Well, not too many. It has developed satellites and launch vehicles and began working on a lunar program before the recent US deal was announced, but it hasn’t seen too much success. In fact, it’s had a few high-profile failures with its Naro-1, the country’s first launch vehicle, when the rocket failed to reach orbit during its first two missions. South Korea has also only ever sent one astronaut into space in its short-lived astronaut program.

Originally, two astronauts were selected from an applicant pool of 36,000. The South Korean government had to pay Roscosmos $28 million for the privilege of training and launching one of the astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz. Somewhat embarrassingly, the first-choice astronaut, Ko San, was ousted from the program after the Russians caught him removing books from their training center, one of which he sent home. His replacement was Yi So-yeon, who became the first Korean and first Korean woman in space in 2008. She headed up the ISS for a ten-day mission in which she conducted experiments on fruit flies and plants. But despite becoming a national icon, and being the country’s only remaining astronaut, in 2014, Yi announced she was leaving KARI.

Even without the capability for large rockets to man its own missions, South Korea hasn’t invested much in space travel so far and hasn’t sent any additional astronauts since. In contrast, the UK space agency is of a similar size to South Korea’s where budget is concerned, and the UK has sent seven astronauts into space. If South Korea does want to compete with the likes of America, Russia, and China, it hasn’t made that goal very clear.

So, beyond satellites, what does South Korea’s future in space really look like? Well, interestingly, Korea currently has its sights set on the moon. In 2022, the country will launch the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, a joint mission with NASA. It’s also a member of the Artemis Accords, meaning it will support the US and other space agencies in the Artemis space program, the United States’ return moonshot scheduled for the mid-2020s. Also part of the lunar program is the development of a lunar lander and a rover before the end of the decade, to further support humanity’s upcoming moon endeavors. Of course, many other countries are also part of Artemis, including Brazil, Ukraine, and the UAE. And it doesn’t seem likely any of those countries will be able to rival the biggest space agencies anytime soon, either.

With so much innovation happening all the time in South Korea, one of Earth’s most futuristic countries, it’s a great ally to have in any space mission. The developments KARI undertakes, bringing 6G and other satellite networks to the world, will someday become commonplace tech. The most recent budgetary data we have for KARI is, unfortunately, a few years old and puts its annual expenditure at around the $580 million mark. But with the recent $13 billion grant into space missile research, that would truly make Korea a world leader in space. Bear in mind that in 2019 the global annual expenditure on space was estimated to be around $70 billion. Though the country’s space missions haven’t fared too well in the past, given Naro’s failures and the untimely end of the astronaut program, that enormous sum of money does look extremely promising. If all the money is directed to space, it would make Korea the second most-well funded space agency in the world. Only time will tell exactly what Korea decides to invest in, however; there’s always the potential that things could change, or that missions will fail, meaning the investment doesn’t have the expected return.

Despite its small size and historically lower investment in space, South Korea now has the cash and the ability to become a real player on the international space stage. And that’s why America might have made South Korea the next space superpower.