SEOUL, March 30 (AP): South Korea said it conducted its first successful launch of a solid-fuel rocket Wednesday in what it called a major step toward acquiring a space surveillance capability amid rising animosities with rival North Korea.
The launch came six days after North Korea carried out its first intercontinental ballistic missile test since 2017 in an apparent attempt to expand its weapons arsenal and increase pressure on the Biden administration amid stalled disarmament talks.
The South Korean-built solid-propellant rocket soared into the sky before releasing a dummy satellite in space, according to photos released by Seoul’s Defence Ministry. A ministry statement said Defence Minister Suh Wook and other senior officials observed the liftoff.
It said solid-fuel rockets reduce launch times, have simpler structures and are cheaper to develop and manufacture than liquid-fuel rockets. South Korea will soon launch a spy satellite into orbit aboard a solid-fuel rocket, the ministry said.
South Korea currently has no military reconnaissance satellites of its own and depends on US spy satellites to monitor strategic facilities in North Korea.
In 2020, South Korea won US consent to use solid fuel for space launch vehicles, removing a restriction that Washington had previously imposed on its key Asian ally out of concerns that use of the technology could lead to bigger missiles and trigger a regional arms race.
Last year, the United States lifted other remaining restrictions to allow South Korea to develop missiles with unlimited ranges.
South Korea had agreed on the restrictions in 1979 in return for receiving missile technology from the US.
Wednesday’s launch came amid tensions over North Korea’s launch of an ICBM last Thursday, which broke its self-imposed moratorium on big weapons tests and violated multiple UN Security Council resolutions.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry concluded earlier this week that North Korea fired a previously tested Hwasong-15 ICBM, rather than a newer, bigger, longer-range Hwasong-17 that it claims to have tested.
The missile flew farther and longer than any previous North Korean launch, placing all of the mainland US within its potential striking distance. It was also North Korea’s highest-profile launch since its Hwasong-15 test in November 2017.
“Coming at a very grave time following North Korea’s lifting of the weapons tests moratorium, this successful test-launch of the solid-fuel space launch vehicle is a key milestone in our military’s efforts to (build) a unilateral space-based surveillance system and bolster defense capability,” the South Korean statement said.