Yoon Suk-yeol’s space mission to Mars or a new era of Star Wars?

“We have some good news. We are flying to the Moon once again.” This is how one can characterize the flow of reports from South Korean media outlets that emerged last week and are devoted to (military) space topics.

On November 28, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol unveiled a roadmap for the development of the space economy of the future. “The dream of creating a space power is not a distant future, but a hope and opportunity for children and the youth.” The head of state stressed that countries with their own space program would take a leading position in the global economy and would be able to solve the problems facing mankind. Six major policy areas were presented.

  1. Exploration of the Moon (development of a spacecraft for launching by 2027 and landing in 2032) and Mars (landing in 2045, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Liberation Day – this will require a space launch vehicle more powerful than KSLV-II.
  2. Becoming a potent space power (entering the top five leading countries in the world) in terms of space communication technologies using satellites and occupying a dominant position in the market for communications and data transmission services. This also includes gaining independence in terms of technologies for the key components of rockets and satellites.
  3. Support for the development of the space industry. To this end, it is planned to double the budget for space exploration programs within five years, and to attract at least 100 trillion won into the industry by 2045. It was announced that the transfer of space technologies to the private sector would take place, as well as the creation of a special fund for the purpose of providing support to specialized companies.
  4. Training of industry specialists, including the creation of space industry clusters in Daejeon, the provinces of South Jeolla and South Gyeongsang (note that the regions dominated by the opposition were not left out) and a space technology research center at leading universities.
  5. Implementation of a space security concept.
  6. Boosting international cooperation (primarily with NASA and, in general, within the framework of the US-South Korea alliance).

On that same day, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced the launch of a working group to create the Korea Aerospace Administration (KASA) under the Ministry of Science and ICT, modelled after NASA. KASA will have the objectives of implementing policy in the field of space exploration, as well as overseeing the relevant R&D. Furthermore, the project will be aimed at implementing the development policy of the aerospace industry, forming a single dedicated structure and increasing competitiveness.

The creation of an aerospace agency was one of Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign promises, and the government will push for the agency to be established by the end of 2023 through a special bill. The chairman of the national space committee, which will pave the way for the era of the space economy, will be the President himself.

On November 30, the Ministry of Science and ICT unveiled the Space Economy Development Plan, which elaborated on Yoon Suk-yeol’s roadmap for space exploration. A goal has been set to establish a system of manned space transportation by 2050. To this end, tasks such as the creation of the space industry, ensuring space security, and the development of the space segment in science must be completed. The space exploration budget, which this year amounted to $563 million, will be increased to $1,150 million by 2027, and to $1,600 million by 2030. The space exploration plan was named “Tamdok Plan” on behalf of the 19th monarch of the ancient state of Goguryeo, Gwanggaeto the Great, whose reign was marked by the maximum increase in the country’s territory. By 2030, it is planned to create a system of unmanned transportation in outer space, and by 2050 – manned transportation, which will allow the country to become the Asian center of space transportation. The government has set a goal to make the space industry one of the ten main areas of the South Korean economy by 2050.

The conservative media applauded, noting that the United Arab Emirates, with a population of just 10 million, set up its own space agency in 2014 and had already taken part in the US-led Artemis program to send astronauts back to the Moon and sent a space probe to Mars. “Space in the 21st century is not an exclusive arena for strong countries to compete for their national pride. As the bustling business activity of SpaceX and Blue Origin shows, space has become a hotbed of industrial and economic competition. The world is rapidly replacing the old state-led space age with a new private sector-led space age. If some people laugh at space exploration by a country of 50 million people, they simply don’t understand the staggering changes taking place in the space sphere. Countries compete fiercely for leadership in developing various types of business using low-orbit satellites, building bases on the Moon for resource extraction, exploring Mars and beyond. In the process, countless new technologies will emerge.”

Therefore, although the space agency has not yet been established, it is already being proposed to be given ministerial status, as “the space industry continues to expand into defense, environmental protection, maritime navigation and other areas that go beyond science. If the space agency is subordinate to a ministry instead of holding a ministerial level position, it will certainly face many obstacles in establishing cooperation with other ministries or the private sector.”

It so happens that news items go in conjunction with one another. According to sources in the South Korean government on November 26, US Forces Korea (USFK) will incorporate a component command of the United States Space Force (USSF) in order to “counter potential military provocations from North Korea”.

This will be the second regional space command to be set up outside the US mainland. The first was created in early November 2022 within the structure of the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, and by the end of 2022, the United States intends to create another space force within the US Central Command responsible for the Middle East.

According to sources, the regional space command in South Korea will be smaller than the one in Hawaii, which has about 20 people, and it will be integrated into the organizational structure of the US Space Command by the end of this year.

According to South Korean media outlets, in its recently released National Security Strategy, the US military stated that the creation of the USSF was aimed at implementing comprehensive deterrence in all areas.  On November 18, 2022, North Korea launched the two-stage Hwasong-17 ICBM, capable of reaching the US mainland, which clearly prompted the US to accelerate plans to launch its space command.

And on December 1, the ROK Air Force launched the Space Operations Squadron at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, 65 kilometers south of Seoul, “as the country seeks to bolster defense capabilities in the increasingly crucial security domain.”

The new squadron includes several older units, including the Space Operations Unit (established in 2019 to carry out various missions such as space debris fallout forecast), the Air Force Space Intelligence Center and the Satellite Control Center.

According to the Air Force, the squadron plans to carry out various missions, such as monitoring space objects in peacetime and wartime, spreading information about potential space threats, space cooperation with the United States (more precisely, with the newly created USSF), and operating military surveillance satellites that South Korea is planning to deploy in the future.

The author has mixed feelings about all these developments. On the one hand, Yoon Suk-yeol is clearly a high-tech aficionado, and his country’s readiness for the space race is a good test for its capabilities not only in the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, the author himself is a space skeptic and does not yet understand the global benefits in the exploration of the Moon, and especially Mars. Such projects of interplanetary exploration seem to be a reference to the times not even of Moon Jae-in, but of Roh Moo-hyun, who also talked a lot about the exploration of the Moon by the South Koreans, which was perceived as an attempt to evade more pressing problems.

Therefore, it is easier to rationalize “Yoon Suk-yeol’s Moon program” by mentioning two other factors. First, this is the President’s active desire to make South Korea a leading exporter of weapons, including missiles, and here the success of the space program is a good advertisement of the country’s military-industrial complex. Second, this implies closer cooperation with the United States in the military sphere in order to counter the nuclear missile potential of North Korea, and here, for Russia and China, South Korean missiles seem to be less of a threat than American ones on the territory of the peninsula.

Exploring Mars is a grand plan for the future, by which time South Korea will have changed about five presidents, and in the short term, such space games condone the creation of a missile defense system under the aegis of the United States and against potential attacks from China and Russia. Inevitably, this draws South Korea into an intensifying rivalry of superpowers.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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