Geoff FordenSouth Korea Blinks

The Republic of Korea (ROK) aborted today’s launch of the KSLV-1 at T minus seven minutes. The crystal-clear blue skies shown in the picture, with the only cloud present being the venting of LOX boil-off, seem to indicate that it was not weather that caused the abort. Instead, it could be either a technical or a political problem. Not enough has been announced for us to discuss technical problems, though that is obviously a possibility with a new rocket. So let’s discuss the political angle.

As the New York Times notes in its article on the aborted launch, the DPRK has been agitating against the launch. Obviously, the North’s national pride would be hurt if the ROK succeeded in launching a satellite the first time it tried after three successive DPRK failures. It has responded in an interesting way by tweeting (oh, dear, once again I am reminded that North Korea is more technologically hip than I am) that it is closely watching to see if the same sanctions are applied to South Korea as were applied to the North. Of course, the South Korean rocket development program was never banned the way the North’s was.

But the real reason the ROK canceled the flight might have just as much to do with the dead as the living. It appears that the DPRK is sending an official representative to the funeral of the late ROK president Kim Dae-jung. Postponing a space launch to some time in the indefinite future seems like a small price to pay for a possible new opening with the North.


  1. Tal Inbar

    There were reports yesterday that the launch may be postpones because the mourning over Kim’s death. However, it was officially announced later that the launch will be attempted after all.

    I think your theory about “Abort diplomacy” is far from true, to say the least.

    You mentioned that “Postponing a space launch to some time in the indefinite future seems like a small price to pay for a possible new opening with the North”

    I think it is NOT a small price, and if THAT was the intention of South Korea, they would not “stage” an attempted space launch today but go with the first explanation of an official state mourning.

  2. Geoff Forden (History)

    I think it depends on when the visit by the official DPRK delegation was finalized. If,as seems likely, the visit was not finalized until today (perhaps just before the launch was scheduled?) then it makes perfect sense to me.

    But I’m interested in the very large price you think the South would pay for canceling the flight for diplomatic reasons. Perhaps you could explain that a bit more?

  3. Anonymous (History)

    Methinks you’ve been excessively drinking the parsing kool-aid.

    Sometimes an aborted launch is just that, an aborted launch. Reading in all manner of political maneuverings in the absence of any evidence whatsoever is fairly amateurish. To believe they’d go to t-7 minutes and then abort for some kind of political reason is, to say the least, ludicrous.

    Don’t fall into that black hole of many an analyst, making news where there is none.

  4. Geoff Forden (History)

    Dear Anonymous,

    Please actually read the post. Sometimes parsing helps.

  5. Andrew Tubbiolo

    Look at how clean that launch pad is. As I understand it, the first stage engine is the same the Russians intend to use on the much delayed Angara. It seems as if the South Koreans have gone to the Russian school of pre-launch prep while horizontal and indoors with horizontal transport to a very spartan launch pad. That approach has served the Russians very well. Looks like the South might have a very nice satellite launcher on their hands.

  6. Azr@el (History)

    Yes,the South might have a very nice satellite launcher on their hands, a very nice Russian satellite carrier that seems to have been shipped nearly straight to the launch site from Russia.

  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    — Azr@el · Aug 19, 02:26 PM
    ‘Russian satellite carrier that seems to have been shipped nearly straight to the launch site from Russia.’

    Ah, so not much was built by the South. Do you have any sources beyond the first page of google that goes more into the history of this launch vehicle? The stuff I’ve come across has been pretty lean on details.

  8. Sean (History)

    Dumb questions: Is the missile not vertical, and if not, why not? Seems like most big missiles are launched vertically, most small ones are not. What is the crossover?

  9. Azr@el (History)

    Jochen would be better informed on the history of the Angara. I’ve heard of it as the Russian response to EELV but had assumed that it died on the vine. Apparently the Ruskies managed to resurrect the modular Angara program by dovetailing it into South Korea’s space aspirations.

    The second stage seems to have some PRC components, to what extant I’m not yet sure. The great lesson of the Naro/KSLV is that a close U.S. ally, under our nuclear umbrella, when denied access to U.S. missile technology will readily seek Russian and PRC substitutes.

  10. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’m not familiar with the history of the KSLV. Is Azr saying that the U.S. set of laws that enforce the Missile Proliferation Regime in the form of ITAR prevented the U.S. from assisting the ROK from developing a launch vehicle? So they, very smartly, went to the Russians?

    Well first off, I’d rather go to the Russians myself. They make better space launch vehicles hands down. But that said, the ROK has no ICBM aspirations let alone need. Preventing a country like the ROK from dealing with a close ally to the US just shoots the US in the foot. Not only that, it gives arms control treaties a bad name. Because in this case the missile technology is still spreading, and the US is losing out on some much needed foreign exchange and political yanking rights on the ROK. In the end, the ROK gets a better deal, and the Russians get to develop and test a core module for Angara which will one day compete against the EELV for launch customers. Given Russia’s proven record for developing good launch vehicles, they’ll take business away form the Americans. It’s double whammies like this that make Americans leery of arms control treaties.

  11. Peter J. Brown

    Or was the delay quietly done as a favor to the US in order to allow for better intercept simulations or just a plain reset of MDA and more specifically USN — and perhaps even Japan M/GSDF — BMD tracking and target acquisition assets down range.

    One cannot rule anything out these days.

    As I was watching the whole low key approach unfold by USN and Japan SDF, I found myself wondering, among other things, if Russian angle here has put some sort of constraints on the way the KSLV-1 and its payload were going to be “illuminated” down range by US and Japan.

  12. Azr@el (History)

    It’s NOT in the interest of the U.S. to promote the spread of rocket technology. On the Korean peninsula, even a lox/kerosene space carrier, much like our early atlas SLV/ICBM, successfully launched by the South may set off a technological/propaganda arms race, with the North devoting more and more resources to keeping up appearances. This could lead to famine, civil collapse, proliferation of missile and nuclear technology and other destabilizing consequences of a disproportionate Northern effort towards space. Anyone of these factors could affect Pyongyang calculus for war and set the conditions for another Korean conflagration. The North would of course lose, but a Southern victory wouldn’t look much better.

    Thus we try to exercise restraint in spreading certain technologies to certain fragile regions, unlike our more mercantile friends in Moscow in Beijing. They call this irony.

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