President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden at the post-summit press conference at the White House, May 21. Credit: South Korea’s presidential office

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden have promised to cooperate toward South Korea signing the Artemis Accords, a set of principles governing norms of behavior for those who want to participate in the NASA-led Artemis lunar exploration program.

Nine nations, including the United States, have signed the Artemis Accords since the pact’s unveiling last year. 

The commitment to work toward South Korea becoming a formal signatory of the Artemis Accords was part of a broader agreement reached between the two leaders in the field of space during their May 21 summit at the White House, under which the two nations will strengthen their partnership in civil space exploration, science, aeronautics research and cooperate for effective joint response against security threats in space.

“President Biden and President Moon commit to strengthening their partnership in civil space exploration, science, and aeronautics research and will cooperate towards the ROK signing the Artemis Accords,” reads a joint statement issued after the summit. ROK stands for the Republic of Korea, South Korea’s official name. “We also agree to deepen cooperation in other domains, including cyber and space, to ensure an effective joint response against emerging threats.”

In a separate document detailing the agreement, released by the White House, the U.S. said it will “support the ROK’s development of its own satellite navigation system, the Korean Positioning System, and enhance its compatibility and interoperability with the Global Positioning System.”

South Korea plans to spend 4 trillion won ($3.56 billion) on building its own positioning system by 2035 by launching seven new satellites — three into geosynchronous orbit and four into inclined geosynchronous orbit. The system is supposed to interoperate with the existing GPS, improving the accuracy of measurement across the Korean Peninsula significantly.

“Taking the [South Korea-U.S.] partnership to the level of space exploration is of the greatest significance,” said Lee Chang-yoon, head officer of the Space, Nuclear and Big Science Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Science and ICT, which is in charge of the nation’s space policy. “Space is something we should approach with a national strategy because it’s not something only about science and technology.” Lee said the two countries will hash out the details, including the official signing of the Artemis Accords, through negotiations.

S. Korean space stocks surge

The announcement caused a surge of stock prices of South Korea’s space companies May 25 on rosy expectations that they will have an opportunity to tap into the burgeoning U.S. space industry.

Hanwha Aerospace, one of the biggest South Korean space companies that contributed to developing the nation’s first domestically developed space launch vehicle KSLV-2, saw its share price soar nearly 13 percent May 25 alone, its biggest one-day gain since June 17, 2020, according to the Korea Exchange.

While Korea Aerospace Industries, the sole aircraft maker in South Korea, gained 3.8 percent on the same day, smaller companies such as Intellian Technologies, Kencoa Aerospace Corp and Satrec Initiative also gained 4-7 percent, reflecting investors’ positive outlook on the industry.

With South Korea’s participation in the Artemis Accords considered a done deal, attention goes to what role South Korea would take in the multinational space exploration project.

“Being part of the project means a lot to South Korea because we will be able to learn a lot from other participants while working together. This will also have a significant impact on the domestic space industry,” said An Hyoung-joon, a research fellow at Science and Technology Policy Institute, a South Korean state think tank. An said America’s support for the Korean Positioning System will help South Korea get its voice heard in international dialogues on related issues.

Joint response to space threats

Meanwhile, U.S. Space Command’s commander, Gen. James Dickinson, visited Seoul May 23 for a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook the following day. Dickinson’s visit came two days after the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. agreed on a joint response against security threats in space.

The two military leaders “discussed ways of cooperation to ensure safe space environment and to advance the [South Korea-U.S.] alliance,” the defense ministry said in a May 24 statement. The ministry said the meeting was in line with space cooperation between the two countries’ defense ministries that began in 2013, but didn’t elaborate further.

“The meeting took place right after the summit, which is meaningful and reflects the two sides’ commitment to cooperation in space security,” said Cho Dong-youn, assistant professor of the Department of Military Studies at Seokyeong University in Seoul. “The two sides are expected to cooperate primarily on issues regarding space debris and space situational awareness. The scope of cooperation could widen as they work together.”

Cho said holding a joint exercise between the two countries would be possible when South Korea establishes a clear counterpart of the U.S. Space Command through legislation and structural reform of the military.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...