[Viewpoint] Turning to aerospace

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[Viewpoint] Turning to aerospace

North Korea’s ballistic missile launch failed. As the missile was supposed to be the ultimate gun salute of the centennial anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea must be greatly disappointed. The project cost as much as enough food for all North Koreans for a year, and its objectives to reinforce internal unity and tout the legitimacy of new leader Kim Jong-un have been undermined.

In the North’s last bid to launch a satellite in North Hamgyeong Province in April 2009, the first and second stages successfully separated, with the first falling in the East Sea and the second flying 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. But this time, the stages didn’t separate. We need to review not just the technical problems but also the domestic and international political situations in order to analyze Pyongyang’s missile launch experiment.

Firstly, we need to study how closely North Korea’s missile capacity has approached the ability to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the launched rocket, the first and second propellants were liquid and the third was solid. If the 100-kilogram (220.5-pound) satellite entered orbit successfully as Pyongyang had hoped, the missile propulsion capacity would be considered substantially close to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Now, it is expected to take some time until the technology is completely developed.

In order to make an intercontinental ballistic missile and the technology to put the warhead out of the atmosphere, through space and then into the atmosphere again is necessary. This involves materials that can resist heat over 5,000 to 6,000 degrees Celsius (9,032 to 10,832 degrees Fahrenheit). Pyongyang seems to have various obstacles to completing the development of the technology.

Secondly, North Korea’s missile launch experiment is closely related to nuclear weapons development. The North went on with the missile launch because it wants to take a high stand in negotiations with the United States by ultimately making small nuclear weapons and acquiring the capacity to shoot a missile with a nuclear warhead atop it.

Therefore, we need to keep in mind that North Korea’s missile launch means the nuclear program is also being pursued simultaneously. The focus of diplomacy should also be on holding back the nuclear experiment. Pyongyang will continue its nuclear program as it hopes to acquire technical stability to control the timing of an explosion and the technology to load a nuclear warhead on a missile.

Thirdly, North Korea’s missile launch let Japan enhance its aerospace programs. A long time ago, Japan completed the research on materials that can resist heat in the course of re-entering the atmosphere from space using Orex and Hyflex. Tokyo announced that it will conduct two re-entry experiments of space aircraft in July and August. Japan boasts outstanding aerospace capacity, launching Korea’s Arirang-3 with its H-2A rocket. Once the re-entry technology is completed, it will be able to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile anytime.

North Korea is virtually helping Japan use its aerospace technology for military purposes. On August 31, 1998, North Korea launched a Rodong missile, urging Japan to enhance its aerospace military capacity. In collaboration with the U.S., Japan established a missile defense system and equipped its Aegis cruiser with SM-3 missiles. It also deployed Patriot missiles so that North Korean missiles may be shot down any time.

While North Korea’s missile launch failed this time, the country will continue to develop and test the missiles. Pyongyang will learn from failure and improve.

In the aftermath of the launch, we need to realize that South Korea has fallen behind in aerospace capacity compared to the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and even North Korea. For peaceful space utilization and territorial defense purposes, we need to acquire the necessary aerospace technology. We should aggressively promote aerospace research and development.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of politics and international affairs at Hanyang University.

by Kim Kyung-min
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