SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea successfully launched its first homegrown space rocket on Tuesday, officials said, a triumph that boosted the country’s growing space ambitions but also proved it has key technologies to build a space-based surveillance system and bigger missiles amid animosities with rival North Korea.
The three-stage Nuri rocket succeeded in releasing and placing its functioning “performance verification” satellite at a target altitude of 700 kilometers (435 miles) after its 4 p.m. liftoff from South Korea’s space launch center on a southern island, the Science Ministry said.
“Dear fellow citizens, the space of Republic of Korea is fully open. The science and technology of Republic of Korea has made a great advance,” Science Minister Lee Jong-Ho told a televised news conference at the launch center. “The government will continue its audacious march toward a space power together with the people.”
In a video conference with scientists and others involved in the launch, President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul congratulated them over their achievement and vowed to keep his campaign promise to establish a state aerospace agency, according to Yoon’s office.
Earlier live TV footage showed the 47-meter (154-foot) rocket, adorned with a national flag and its official name in Korean, rising into the air amid bright flames and thick white smoke.
The launch has made South Korea the world’s 10th nation to place a satellite into space with its own technology.
It was South Korea’s second launch of the Nuri rocket. In the first attempt last October, the rocket's dummy payload reached its desired altitude but didn't enter orbit because the engine of the rocket’s third stage burned out earlier than planned.
South Korea, the world’s 10th-largest economy, is a main supplier of semiconductors, automobiles and smartphones on world markets. But its space development program lags behind that of its Asian neighbors China, India and Japan.
North Korea placed its first and second Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, though there is no proof that either one has ever transmitted spaced-based imagery and data back home. Those North Korean launches invited U.N. economic sanctions because they were viewed as covers for testing the country’s banned long-range missile technology.
Since the early 1990s, South Korea has sent a slew of satellites into space, but all from overseas launch sites or aboard a rocket built with the help of foreign technology. In 2013, South Korea successfully launched a satellite for the first time from its soil, but the first stage of its launch vehicle was manufactured by the Russians.
After South Korea’s 2013 satellite launch, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of revealing “double standards and brigandish nature" because it supported the South Korean launch but spearheaded U.N. sanctions on the North’s 2012 satellite launch. North Korea didn’t immediately respond to Tuesday’s Nuri launch.
South Korea plans to conduct four more Nuri rocket launches in coming years. It also hopes to send a probe to the moon, build next-generation space launch vehicles and send large-scale satellites into orbit.
South Korean officials said the Nuri rocket has no military purposes.
The transfer of space launch technology is strictly restricted under a multilateral export control regime because it has military applications. Experts say ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles share similar bodies, engines and other components, though missiles require a reentry vehicle and other technologies.
“If you put a satellite on the top of a rocket, it would become a space launch vehicle. But if you mount a warhead on it, it becomes a weapon,” said Kwon Yong Soo, a former professor at Korea National Defense University in South Korea. “(A successful launch) is really meaningful because we also succeed in the test of a long-range rocket that can be used to build a long-range missile.”
Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said it’s difficult to directly use Nuri as a missile because it uses liquid fuels that must be kept at an extremely low temperature and requires much longer fueling time than solid fuels. He said North Korean long-range missiles also use liquid fuels, but extremely toxic ones that are maintained at ordinary temperatures and require less fueling time than Nuri’s.
This year, North Korea has test-launched about 30 missiles with potential ranges that place the U.S. mainland and its regional allies like South Korea and Japan within striking distance.
South Korea already has missiles that can hit all of North Korea, but some experts say the country also needs longer-range missiles because it’s surrounded by regional military powers and potential adversaries.
“If we only think about North Korea, a long-range missile doesn’t mean much for us. But it’s very unfortunate that military powers like China and Russia are near us,” Kwon said.
Kwon said Nuri's successful launch proves South Korea also has the capability to send a spy satellite into orbit. Lee said Nuri can be used to send a spy satellite — though it would be better for South Korea, a relatively small country, to have many smaller spy satellites that can be sent by solid-fueled rockets that have less thrust power than a liquid-fueled one like Nuri.
South Korea currently has no military reconnaissance satellites of its own and depends on U.S. spy satellites to monitor strategic facilities in North Korea. South Korea has said it would launch its own surveillance satellites soon.