South Korea's Planned Satellite Launch Raises Questions

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Stella Kim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

South Korea on Wednesday plans to launch a satellite into space using technology capable, in theory, of eventually delivering nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction.

A successful launch from an island off South Korea's southwestern coast will add that country to an elite club of nine nations that have demonstrated the capability to orbit a satellite and -- if they choose -- to conduct long-range missile strikes against an enemy. But it will probably not attract the same kind of international criticism heaped on North Korea when it recently attempted a similar launch.

Proliferation experts say the launch is problematic, even if South Korea, a close U.S. ally, says it is for scientific purposes.

Under U.S. pressure, South Korea agreed in 2001 to adhere to an international agreement limiting the range of its ballistic missiles. But it has since taken advantage of what many proliferation experts call a loophole exempting "national space programs" that typically involve identical technologies.

"From a nonproliferation purist point of view, it is of concern when any country, in good international standing or not, develops the kind of capability that could be transferred to a ballistic missile," said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association who formerly directed the strategic, proliferation and military affairs office at the State Department's intelligence bureau.

The space launch is occurring as South Korea expands its cruise missile programs, and as some officials there are calling for a renegotiation of the ballistic and cruise missile limits agreed to with Washington. "There is some concern" that South Korea might not be complying with the cruise missile limits, said Dennis C. Wilder, who served as a National Security Council official from 2005 until last January and is now at the Brookings Institution.

Getting Russia's Aid

Years ago, the U.S. government spurned South Korea's appeals for assistance under what a diplomatic official last week described as a long-standing policy of "not supporting new space launch vehicles" anywhere.

South Korea responded by spending an estimated $200 million to obtain the assistance of Russia, whose ballistic missile technology has also directly or indirectly benefited North Korea, Brazil, Iran and Syria. Russia and South Korea have pledged to respect the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary group of countries that limits transfers explicitly related to long-range ballistic or cruise missiles but welcomes cooperation on space programs.

According to South Korean officials, Washington subsequently intervened in 2006 with Russia, which is supplying the first stage of the rocket about to be launched, to try to limit the technology transfer and ensure that Moscow would monitor the technology's use.

The Obama administration has sought to reassure the South of Washington's commitment to its security in the wake of threatening rhetoric from North Korea; it has been mum about the imminent launch. None of the allied capitals that roundly denounced North Korea's April missile launch -- which it maintained was meant to orbit a satellite -- has registered complaints.

Japan had pressed the U.N. Security Council to censure North Korea. But Motosada Matano, a first secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, said Tokyo hopes the South Korean launch "will be successful."

That hope emanates in part from the fact that South Korea's two-stage rocket is supposed to pass through Japanese airspace before orbiting a payload that officials say will be used for scientific purposes over the next two years. But the supportive rhetoric from Tokyo and elsewhere will disappoint officials in North Korea, who issued a warning last week that they "will closely watch" to see if Seoul's neighbors raise objections and demand similar U.N. sanctions.

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