South Korea on Tuesday said it has won US consent to use solid fuel for space launch vehicles, a move that experts say would enable Seoul to launch its first surveillance satellites and accumulate technology to build more powerful missiles.
Solid fuel offers greater mobility for missiles and rockets, and reduces launch preparation time. But Washington had imposed strict restrictions on Seoul’s use of solid propellant for space launch rockets out of concern that it could be used to produce bigger missiles and cause a regional arms race.
On Tuesday, the South Korean government said that Seoul and Washington have agreed to revise related bilateral missile guidelines to lift such restrictions.
Kim Hyun-chong, deputy presidential national security adviser, told reporters that all South Korean research institutes, companies and individuals are now free to develop, produce and possess space launch rockets using solid fuel.
Kim said the revised agreement still bars South Korea from having a missile with a range of more than 800 kilometres (500 miles). But he said Seoul can discuss altering that restriction with Washington if that’s needed for South Korean national security.
Kim said solid fuel is much cheaper than liquid fuel and is more useful in times of lifting low-earth orbit satellites. He said South Korea could use solid fuel-based rockets to launch military reconnaissance satellites. South Korea currently has no spy satellites.
Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said South Korea could use two or three low-earth orbit satellites fired by solid propellant-based rockets to better monitor North Korea.
Lee said the latest deals with the US would also allow South Korea to expand its space development infrastructure and accumulate know-how to manufacture missiles that can fly longer with bigger payloads. Experts say ballistic missiles and rockets in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology.
South Korea’s missile capability is inferior to that of rival North Korea. In 2017, North Korea carried out three intercontinental ballistic missiles tests as part of its efforts to build a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US mainland.