South Korea Launched Its First Satellite: The New Space Race Is Heating Up

Space law is going to be even more heavily argued over than it already is.

As yet another cloud of rocket exhaust clears in the East, it looks like we've got another space race on our hands. South Korea has successfully launched a satellite payload into orbit, which follows hot on the heels of North Korea and Iran. It's a big step for the country, especially as a counter to North Korea's own surprising launch. It also means that the once-exclusive club of space-capable countries is rapidly swelling.

The lifter, named Naro, successfully launched and cruised through stage separation before reaching orbit. It's the first successful launch from South Korea's space center, which is about 300 miles south of Seoul, after two previous attempts in the last four years fizzled out at the last minute. South Korea's rocket was built by Russia, but the country hopes to develop its own lifter by 2018. Still, it's a big moral victory for South Korea, and also means that it can stop relying on other countries to launch its own satellites.

North Korea is predictably pissed. It's launch of a long-range rocket was a major coup. It came as a surprise to the international community, and the rocket's reported 6,000 mile range is a rather large saber for a country that's made its bones rattling them. At the same time, North Korea said it was only launching a satellite (that's reportedly dead), and feels that such a peaceful mission isn't justification for the sanction handed down last week by the UN Security Council. The Security Council, on the other hand, felt that the mission was simply cover for developing a nuclear ICBM.

Even if North Korea was angry at the Security Council, the sanctions shouldn't have come as a surprise. But now that South Korea has launched, mostly to accolades, Pyonyang is crying foul. From the New York Times:

North Korea has vehemently rejected the United Nations resolution, vowing to launch more long-range rockets and conduct a third nuclear test. It accused the Security Council and Washington, which led international support for its resolution, of applying “double standards,” noting that countries like South Korea were free to launch rockets.

South Korea said that its program, unlike North Korea’s, was solely for commercial purposes.

The South Korean military mobilized to protect the rocket launch, which isn't exactly a departure from the normally tense relations between the two Koreas. But the difference in international responses to the launches–which, depending on your opinion, is justified or not–seems to be reverse the trend towards thawing relations between the countries.

There's a broader implication of South Korea's launch: Space is rapidly becoming a crowded place. The once-short list of countries that can launch payloads into has swelled, and now the Koreas can be added to the list. Space has long been a fairly cooperative place–whatever the political relations are between the U.S. and Russia or China, space exploration has been pretty amicable in the post-Soviet era–but as the space era unfolds, the political arena is increasingly going to end up in orbit.

Let me see if I can break this down coherently: Iran took the major step of launching a monkey into space, and says that men are next. Analysis of recovered rocket pieces suggest that Iran and North Korea have a two-way flow of rocket information, which means that North Korea is getting closer to a nuclear ICBM and, if that happens, Iran may not be far behind. Until now, Iran's nuclear capability has been thwarted by a lack of purified uranium as well as a confirmed lift system. But can definitely launch small payloads, and North Korea is likely developing in the ICBM direction, and South Korea's launch, if nothing else, will likely inspire North Korea to push forward harder. 

Meanwhile, China voted yes to the Security Council's sanctions, which suggests that Beijing, whose connections to North Korea have always been murky but which has generally been seen as a calming force and semi-ally, may be turning a shoulder towards Pyongyang. And of course there's Japan, which also has a well-developed space program, and which gets rather unhappy about anyone launching rockets over its airspace and has a missile defense system that's being continually built up.

That means that space, which has remained the province of high-five-earning multinational flights to the ISS, competition in the satellite economy, and plenty of surreptitious military and intelligence activity, is gearing up to once again be a full-fledged geopolitical hotspot.

But unlike the Sovet-American race, which was yet another extension of Cold War one-upmanship, the new space race features a multitude of volatile players (I've yet to mention Israel, which also has a successful space program and is surely not happy with Iran's space progress, nor the private space economy that's only going to complicate matters further) that likely won't reach an easy detente in space, as they haven't anywhere else. The question of who has authority in space, and who (if anyone) has territory where, sounds like a question for Jame Retief, but as the space boom picks up steam, space law is going to be even more heavily argued over than it already is.