South Korea Catches Up to North Korea on the Space Race

Jennifer Chang
Source: SpaceX

South Korea says its first successful launch Wednesday of a rocket from its own soil has opened a new era of opportunity, taking the pressure off to keep up with its rival, North Korea, on a space race.

President Lee Myung-bak hailed the launch as the first step toward opening an "era of space science" for the country, according to his spokesman.

The launch comes after at least two previously failed attempts, including one in 2009 and 2010. The rocket blasted off at 4 p.m., here, and put a science satellite into orbit, making South Korea the 13th nation to successfully put a satellite into space from its own country – just after rival North Korea surprised with its own successful launch last month.

The South had previously run up against serious US resistance to a satellite launch attempt. The US feared the development and launch of a satellite was a cover by Seoul to develop and test long-range missiles. If that were the case, worried the US, it could spark an arms race with Pyongyang.

The North's launch of a satellite in December was quickly condemned by the international community for violating UN resolutions, and was seen widely as a cover to test weapons capabilities.

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Washington is still somewhat worried about a space race with the North, says Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But after South Korea and the US reached a new missile agreement in October, allowing Seoul to develop longer-range ballistic missiles capable of striking all of North Korea with stronger warheads, it appears likely that Washington would no longer oppose the South's development of long-range missiles.

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Mr. Snyder says that given the technical problems that South Korea has had with Russia as a partner in its attempts to launch the "Naro rocket," it may now seek out a new partner and should look at NASA as an option.

Meanwhile, for Washington, "the opportunities could potentially outweigh the concerns at this point" to working with Seoul rather than against it, says Snyder. The US needs to consider carefully how it interacts with close ally Seoul, when the competition is Russia. US-South Korean collaborative efforts could benefit America economically and strategically, he says.

(Read More: North Korea to Target US With Nuclear, Rocket Tests)

James Clay Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, agrees. South Korea "can expand its reach into space by building more intensive cooperative links with its friends and allies, thus allowing it to cost-share in international missions and satellite constellations without having to own or construct all of the technology," he says.