SEOUL: South Korea launched a satellite into space from its own soil for the first time Wednesday amid increased tensions after archrival North Korea accomplished a similar feat and was condemned by the United Nations.
The South Korean rocket blasted off from a launchpad in the southwestern coastal village of Goheung. Science officials told cheering spectators minutes later that the rocket delivered an observational satellite into orbit. Officials expected to know Thursday whether the satellite is operating as intended.
A crowd gathered around a TV at a train station in downtown Seoul to watch the launch. “I’m proud we have entered the ranks of satellite powers,” office worker Hyun Day-sun said.
The launch is a culmination of years of efforts by South Korea – Asia’s fourth-largest economy – to advance its space program and cement its standing as a technology powerhouse whose semiconductors, smartphones and automobiles command global demand. North Korea’s long-range rocket program, in contrast, has generated international fears that it is getting closer to developing nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S.
South Korea’s success comes amid increased tension on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s threat to explode its third nuclear device. Pyongyang is angry over tough new international sanctions over its Dec. 12 rocket launch and has accused its rivals of applying double standards toward the two Koreas’ space programs.
Washington and Seoul have called North Korea’s rocket launch a cover for a test of Pyongyang’s banned ballistic missile technology.
North Korea recently acknowledged that its long-range rockets have both scientific and military uses, and Kong Chang-duk, a professor of rocket science at South Korea’s Chosun University, said the same argument could apply to the South.
Seoul may eventually be able “to build better missiles and scrutinize North Korea with a better satellite,” Kong said. “There are dual purposes in space technology.”
Both Koreas see the development of space programs as crucial hallmarks of their scientific prowess and national pride, and both had high-profile failures before success.
South Korean satellites were already in space, launched from countries including Japan, the United States and Russia. Seoul tried and failed to launch satellites on its own in 2009 and 2010; more recent launch attempts were aborted at the last minute.
U.S. experts have described the North’s satellite as tumbling in space and said it does not appear to be functioning, though Pyongyang has said it is working.
The satellite launched by Seoul is designed to analyze weather data, measure radiation in space, gauges distances on earth and test how effectively South Korean-made devices installed on the satellite operate in space. South Korean officials said it will help them develop more sophisticated satellites in the future.
South Korea did need outside help to launch the satellite: The rocket’s first stage was designed and built by Russian experts. North Korea built its rocket almost entirely on its own, South Korean military experts said.