Aug 27, 2009

Rockets, Russia, and the Korean Peninsula

Chuck MisslerBy Chuck Missler

South Korea successfully launched a rocket on Tuesday, hoping to put a satellite into space from its own territory for the first time. The launch ended in disappointment when the satellite overshot its intended orbit, but Russia's assistance has offered South Korea's space program a solid jump start. In the meanwhile, North Korea has shown some slight softness in recent weeks. While South Korea and the United States are skeptical of real good will, there is hope Kim Jung Il's failing health may mean he is serious about making a deal.

South Korea has long been a strong United States ally. When it asked the US to help with its young space program, however, the US declined for fear of starting an arms race on the Korean peninsula. South Korea then turned to Russia for assistance. Seoul has long had to depend on other countries to shoot its satellites into orbit, and the ability to launch its own rockets is a big boost to the Asian nation.

Assisting in the space program is not Russia's first cooperation with South Korea. Russia has launched South Korean satellites in the past, and the two countries regularly cooperate on several different levels. Korean conglomerates like Samsung and LG have research centers in Russia, where they've hired hundreds of Russian engineers and scientists to improve the technology in their products. Korea found a surplus of unemployed educated Russians available and has made use of them. Samsung and LG both develop in Russian software platforms for the digital technologies in their cell phones and other digital products. The Russians are also willing to share intellectual property with Korea.

"The Japanese, Germans, and Americans either deny access to their state-of-the-art technologies or charge exorbitant license fees to Korean rivals," says senior researcher Cho Joong Hoon at the state-funded Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology. "Russians are also more accommodative in negotiating terms for sharing intellectual properties after joint R&D."
In the meanwhile, North Korea has been behaving less antagonistic than usual. First, it welcomed former US President Bill Clinton and released the two South Korean journalists it was holding hostage. Pyonyang then released a South Korean businessman, and even sent a delegation to the funeral for South Korea's late President Kim Dae Jung last weekend.

Certainly, the North's long-range missile program continues despite the world's chagrin, but North Korea has also expressed willingness to open up talks with the United States again. That is, it will talk with the US alone, minus the other countries at the six-party talks of the recent past.

South Korea suspects the North will try to shove a wedge between the US and South Korea, but also trusts the US to share the content of the discussions. Seoul and Washington are in agreement that there can be no nuclear program in North Korea, and Seoul will only offer Pyongyang economic aid according to how well the North sticks to its commitments to denuclearize.

North Korea's deceptive ways are well known; Pyongyang has already twice agreed to get rid of its nuclear program but hasn't ever followed through. In light of Kim Jong Il's failing health, though, the current situation may possibly be different than in the past. If Kim is getting ready to pass the baton to his youngest son, there could be an opportunity to make a real deal with North Korea. Then again, Kim's treachery may last as long as he does...and get passed right along to his son.

Related Links

Russia's Ties with South Korea Deepen - Business Week
South Korea Launches Satellite - The New York Times
S. Korea Launches Its First Rocket, Satellite Fails - Fox News
North Korea Makes Nice: An Opening for the U.S.? - Time
Strategic Trends: Weapons Proliferation - Koinonia House
Strategic Trends: The Rise Of The Far East - Koinonia House