South Korea says it has successfully test-fired its first solid-fuel space rocket | South Korea

South Korea has said it has successfully test-fired a solid-fuel space rocket for the first time, as it attempts to ramp up its defences after North Korea’s recent launch of a long-range missile and amid speculation that the regime could soon conduct a nuclear test.

The South’s defence ministry said Wednesday’s launch, from a site 150km (93 miles) south-west of Seoul, was an “important milestone” in the country’s ability to monitor its neighbour, as it would allow it to eventually launch satellites to spy on the North.

The launch came days after North Korea tested what it described as its largest intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] yet, although South Korean officials believe the missile involved was not, as Pyongyang claims, a new Hwasong-17, but a less powerful missile last tested in 2017.

The defence ministry said the space rocket test “came at a very grave juncture in which North Korea has recently breached its moratorium and launched an ICBM”.

“The success of the test launch of this solid-propelled space launch vehicle is an important milestone in strengthening the defence power of our military’s independent space-based surveillance and reconnaissance field at a very critical time,” ministry said, citing North Korea’s recent ICBM test.

The launch had been conducted with “pure Korean technology”, it added.

The test has also raised concerns about a new arms race on the Korean peninsula, coming less than a year after South Korea and the US agreed to end decades of restrictions on Seoul’s ballistic missile and rocket development, including a ban on missiles with a maximum range of more than 800km.

Seoul responded to last week’s ICBM test with a rare show of force, weeks before the country’s new conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, takes office, having promised a tougher stance against his country’s “main enemy” than under the outgoing liberal president, Moon Jae-in.

Hours after the ICBM launch, South Korea’s military responded with a volley of missile launches from the ground, sea and air – an indication that it may no longer be willing to restrict its response to North Korean provocations with the simple words of condemnation.

The defence ministry noted that space was becoming critical to the South’s national security and vowed to strengthen its space defence capabilities.

North Korea had not launched a long-range missile or conducted a nuclear test since late 2017, but broke its self-imposed moratorium last week, describing the test as a “historical event” that would help curb “dangerous military attempts” by the US.

But officials in South Korea this week dismissed the North’s claims and accused it of firing a less-powerful existing weapon and fabricating data after a failed Hwasong-17 launch a week earlier.

The defence ministry said factors such as the missile’s speed, combustion and stage separation were similar to those of the Hwasong-15, not the Hwasong-17. The ministry also suggested that a North Korean video of the launch was not shot on the actual launch date, citing an analysis of shadows cast by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and weather conditions seen in the film.

North Korea has also conducted satellite launches, but the US says they are covers for tests of ballistic missile technology banned under UN security council sanctions.

In October, South Korea conducted the first test launch of the Nuri liquid-fuelled rocket, its first domestically built space launch vehicle. Nuri blasted off but failed to fully place a dummy satellite into orbit.

In contrast to the Nuri’s liquid-fuel design, a solid-fuel rocket such as the one tested on Wednesday would be simpler, less expensive to develop and manufacture, and faster to launch, the defence ministry said.

With Reuters