By: Jennifer Hong Whetsell and Alice Cho |
During ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol’s April state visit to the United States, he visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. There, with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, they reaffirmed the United States’ and South Korea’s determination to “strengthen U.S.-ROK space cooperation across all sectors—civil, commercial, and national security.”
Such statements continue to signal that South Korea wants to be a valuable partner in space to the United States. But becoming one of the United States’ partners of choice is an uphill battle, especially given the early stages of South Korea’s space program. For South Korea to become a trusted U.S. partner in space, both countries must address three major areas of misalignment in how they view space cooperation and the value add of South Korea’s space capabilities.
Flexibility vs. Specialization
There is a fundamental discrepancy between how South Korea and the United States view South Korea’s lack of specialization. South Koreans believe having a wide array of space assets plays an important role in enhancing national power and prestige. Therefore, existing space-related infrastructure, bureaucratic authorities, and funding slows its climb up the rankings of space-faring nations. South Korea believes that flexibility in its trajectory buys time to develop its specialty while also building up the legitimacy of its space assets. South Korea’s 4th Basic Plan for Space Development demonstrates this by outlining the country’s potential in a broad range of space technologies, from satellites to lunar orbiters to launch pads.
But upon seeing the broad range of South Korea’s vision, the United States is quick to assume South Korea’s ambitions are unspecific and unrealistic. From the U.S. perspective, cooperation can only be executed through vision, and vision comes from understanding each player’s priorities. The United States believes it cannot understand South Korea because it is not forthcoming on what it intends to do with its capabilities. Unable to understand how South Korea’s space capabilities could fit into a broader regional architecture, cooperation does not deepen.
Threat of North Korea vs. Threat of China
Another major roadblock is the two countries’ misaligned threat pictures. The United States’ National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both emphasize China as its “pacing challenge.” However, South Korea’s 2022 Defense White Paper places the Korean peninsula at the center, and says little about South Korea’s strategy in regards to a rising China. With different threat pictures, the United States and South Korea cannot define what it means to secure the Indo-Pacific.
In contrast, Japan’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy identify its objective as the ability “to shape a security environment that does not tolerate unilateral changes to the status quo by force,” referring to China. It is no coincidence that U.S.-Japanese space collaboration is the strongest in the Indo-Pacific as these documents are praised at bilateral space meetings. Just last month, the United States completed the delivery of space-based sensors that are to be hosted on a Japanese satellite system. One South Korean report states how the United States’ and Japan’s shared threat recognition has deepened their space cooperation through a shared recognition that both actors must balance against China’s space activities.
Because of limited resources and finite capacity, the United States favors partners who are better aligned with their goals and objectives. With partners who differ in their threat perspective, cooperation takes on an air of hesitancy because both sides are unsure if they stand to benefit from cooperation.
Eye for the global stage vs. Regional collaboration
The United States and South Korea have differing views on Korea’s role in the space domain. From a security standpoint, it would be in U.S. interests for South Korea to focus on its cooperation with Japan and other Indo-Pacific allies first and foremost. However, South Korea sees itself and desires to be a “global player” in the space domain. While South Korea sees value in deepening cooperation with nations like Japan and Australia, it desires to broaden its reach and cast a wider net to find partners and collaborators like with Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. While the United States may not see these partnerships as strategic for its picture of the Indo-Pacific, these partnerships are significant to South Korea’s ambition to be a space partner for countries all over the world.
South Korea and the United States can help one another as the space capabilities of threat actors like China and North Korea grow. But just as the United States had decades to build out its space program and Japan’s space program did not emphasize national security until 2020—South Korea needs time. When the United States and South Korea cannot cooperate deeply or effectively over these differences, leading to tension and distrust—the only losers are the United States and South Korea.
Perfect alignment does not have to be a requirement for substantive cooperation. For instance, expanding bilateral space cooperation with India is a high priority for the United States. However, India also a deep space partnership with Russia through data sharing agreements and joint research programs that show no indication of weakening. The United States still intends to cooperate with India in space despite differing perceptions of the Russian threat because it stands to gain from India’s space assets to work towards shared priorities.
Similarly, South Korea and the United States should create avenues to facilitate cooperation despite areas of misalignment, while also more openly addressing this misalignment through the dialogues already in place. By doing so, the United States and South Korea are more likely to find common ground for cooperation. Small steps on prolonged and persistent engagement will be a big leap towards mutual trust and understanding—the critical elements of successful space cooperation.