[ANALYSIS] Korea's NASA: one giant leap for the country's bureaucracy
Korea wants its own NASA, pulling together all the disparate elements of the current space program scattered around government in various departments and agencies. It's just not clear how it's going to consolidate the various bits and pieces, and what sort of organization is the right one to get the job done.
The country is coming off two big space-related successes. In June, it launched a satellite with a 100-percent domestically-developed rocket for the first time. In August, Korea's first lunar orbiter was sent on its way atop a SpaceX Falcon 9.
To take the country's space program to the next level, a dedicated agency, modelled after the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is the goal. It would be a soup-to-nuts entity, doing everything from research to developing policy support for the private sector.
Space initiatives in Korea are run and organized by various ministries, committees and other government bodies — including the Ministry of Science, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the National Space Committee, the Ministry of National Defense and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
The lack of centralization leads to duplication of efforts and reduced efficiency.
"We will set up an aerospace agency similar to the NASA of the United States," President Yoon Suk-yeol said on Aug. 31. "It should serve its purpose properly as an expert organization, not a regular bureaucratic organization."
The comment was made in response to the request from Park Wan-soo, the governor of South Gyeongsang, urging the president to "set up an aerospace agency as soon as possible in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, that would oversee all areas of the space sector — including the industry, national security, R&D and policy support."
Yoon added that "the officials from related ministries recently held a meeting presided by the presidential office to discuss the details on the establishment of the aerospace agency."
The government included the establishment of an aerospace agency in its national agenda, promising to set up an organization "to organize related programs across various ministries and tap into the expert capabilities of the private sector."
The plan is to include the establishment of an aerospace agency in a bill submitted to the National Assembly to revise the Government Organization Act. The Assembly will be in session for 100 days from Sept. 1 through Dec. 9.
What the president has proposed is tentatively categorized as a "cheong" in Korean, which translates as an "administration," "agency," "service," or "office" depending on the purpose. Cheongs normally operate under a ministry. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, for example, is a cheong, or standalone agency, under the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
If the new aerospace agency is placed under the prime minister, it would be named a "ministry," such as the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and possibly a "committee" if it is directly under the president, like in the case of the Regulatory Reform Committee.
If placed under a ministry, the aerospace agency is likely to be more independent and agile in the decision-making process as a standalone agency. However, it would lack the authority and ability to oversee the space programs operated at other ministries, according to a study for reorganizing the national space program published by Science and Technology Policy Institute.
If it is organized as a ministry under the prime minister, it would have authority over other ministries, but wouldn't have the rule-making powers of a committee under the president. A space agency directly under the president would be able to take part in the legislative process and have more authority over other ministries and related sectors, but it may not be as agile, which would undermine its efficiency.
Some experts argue that the new aerospace agency should have a bigger authority than a regular "agency," or cheong, in order to become a central organization that oversees the government-led space programs as the Yoon administration claims it to be.
"It should not be a 'cheong,' and it needs to be under the president," said Chang Young-keun, an aerospace engineering professor at Korea Aerospace University.
A space agency under the science ministry would be far from the "NASA model" that the government refers to, argued Chang, as it is likely to end up as a mere bureaucratic organization.
According to Chang, NASA operates directly under the presidential office and mostly consists of experts specializing in the research and development of cutting-edge space technologies. Therefore "if the government really wants to refer to the NASA model, it should upgrade the Korea Aerospace Research Institute into a national space agency."
NASA is an independent agency under the executive branch.
As private sector engagement is the key to the establishment of the space agency amid the global shift to the private-led "new space" era, the new space agency should be an expert group to help boost the private sector, said Chang.
"The space program should be a project led by the president," said Yoon Ji-woong, professor at the department of public administration at KyungHee University, during a forum on space policy held in June.
NASA, which has been cited as a role model by the government, is actually equivalent to a ministry-level organization in Korea, said Yoon.
"I do not think that the space 'cheong' mentioned as a national policy agenda item should not and cannot be understood as the cheong organization we already know," said Yoon. "The new space agency should be set up in a new, innovative model, not bound by the old administrative structure."
BY SHIN HA-NEE [email@example.com]