South Korea’s launch of a satellite into space on Wednesday comes only weeks after North Korea performed a similar feat which has the international community on edge. But do such actions give other countries genuine reason for concern? Or, are they simply acts to boost national pride, the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades?
In August 1945, President Harry Truman ordered a mission to recruit German scientists and aerospace engineers who had pioneered the creation of ballistic missiles and primitive rockets capable of entering outer space. With the demise of Nazi Germany at the close of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union saw an opportunity to acquire this unparalleled technology.
Known as “Operation Paperclip,” the mission involved the recruitment and interrogation of the majority of Germany’s rocket team, while the U.S.S.R. acquired its own share of sources. With the knowledge each would glean from these individuals, along with the impending competition between the two, this mission would spark the beginning of the Space Race.
The rapid pursuit of space exploration technology by both countries from the 1940s to the 1960s may at first appear to be a costly distraction from the goal to protect their respective countries from possible war. Yet, the Space Race was an integral component of the Cold War, representing more than just national bravado and one-upmanship. By seeking to outpace each other in achieving space-ready technology, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were fighting an ideological war of global proportions, seeking to dictate the international order while looking to constantly stay ahead of the other.
Furthermore, the threat of all-out nuclear war between the two prevented any kind of direct military engagement, since such an act would inevitably escalate to atomic proportions. Instead, the two fought scientific, propaganda and proxy wars in attempts to abate the other. These acts were costly, yet enabled the two to deflect competitive tensions and prevent something much worse.
It is yet to be seen whether such power competition among countries today will successfully deter conflict, or instead, precipitate it. International fears are certainly mounting over the rocket technology displayed by both North Korea and Iran. In December, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into space, while this week, Iran claims to have sent a monkey into orbit and back, suggesting it will be ready to send a human into space by 2019.
A number of other countries are joining the race, including China, which aims to land on the moon this year; India, which plans to send an unmanned probe into the orbit of Mars later this year; and Japan, which has established legislation supporting military space development programs.
For the most part, these countries are seeking to establish their power position in a changing global environment. Their space exploration assumes the same role it did for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. — primarily to assert its own advancement and prowess, while sending a message to others that it is capable of great technological feats.
This new Space Race is largely encouraged by the U.S. and others, with the exception of North Korea and Iran. The international community sees both nations’ actions as a ruse for what is likely the development of long-range nuclear missile technology. Only last week, North Korea announced plans for a third nuclear test and threatened counter-measures against South Korea for participating in the latest round of United Nations sanctions, imposed for the December rocket launch. Of course, such threats are nothing new, yet have South Korea and other surrounding countries on edge.
These developments in East Asia also come amid the perceived rise to prominence of China, and with a number of ongoing territorial disputes between themselves, Japan and South Korea. This heightened competition in recent years has ended any chance of cooperation on space technology, and has rather increased mutual suspicions and elicited something of a modern-day arms race.
With the U.S. still holding a prominent military position in the region, closely allied with South Korea and Japan, conflict is unlikely, and all eyes will remain largely fixed on North Korea for the time being. However, the many successes and failures of the ensuing Space Race are certain to bring about both concern and change in the coming years.