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[Op-Ed] The Naro Fiasco

Posted August. 21, 2009 08:20,   


It is really regrettable that the launch of the KSLV-1, Korea’s first space rocket that is also called Naro, was halted just eight minutes before blastoff Wednesday. The delay was reportedly due to a glitch in the software designed to check the rocket’s condition that led to the inaccurate reading of the pressure of a fuel tank. Korean scientists were not involved in the analysis of the reason behind the suspension. Contrary to the Korean government’s claim of working together with Russia to develop the phase-one liquid-fuel rocket, Russia is spearheading the project while Korea has just bought the technology. Seoul says it will develop itself 80 percent of the technologies related to the launch pad, but Moscow has apparently declined to hand over design blueprints for the core technology.

The Korean government began the project to develop the rocket in 2002 even without the required technology. It envisioned buying advanced technology or taking a “quantum jump” by unofficially getting the technology from others. Russia, an advanced power in launch vehicle technology with whom Korea forged a partnership in 2005, has not transferred the technology. The Space Technology Protection Treaty signed between both sides at Russia’s request bans the transfer of technology on liquid fuel-powered engines, and has thus deepened Korean dependence on Russian technology. Support for research and development and political and diplomatic efforts are urgently needed to ensure that Korea catch up in space technology and secure technological independence.

A former engineer who now heads a small parts maker in Korea said, “If Korea is to overcome technological dependence, it must seek to make things in advance by reading global trends and predicting demand.” He indicated the need for a “virtuous cycle” in which the country secures steady sales through seed items while developing new items to enable sustainable growth at the same time. In the parts and component industry spanning tens of thousands of items, a small and medium-size enterprise can become the world’s best through research and development. Korea, however, is too heavily dependent on Japanese technology. Costs stemming from technological dependence are included in patent and license fees paid, and Korea posted a deficit of 520 million U.S. dollars with Japan in this sector in 2007.

Korea is beating Japan in a number of fields. The Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group rejected an offer from Toyota Motor in 2004 to form an alliance for hybrid engine technology. Hyundai-Kia could have easily entered the sector by using Toyota technology and parts, but correctly judged that it would lose ground over the long term by growing technologically reliant on the Japanese carmaker. The Korean company renewed its commitment and made painstaking efforts to develop its own hybrid engine integrating an LPG engine and electric motor, and has introduced a vehicle with the engine in Korea. Korea’s heavy technological dependence on other countries has shown its sorry state through the failure to launch the country’s first space rocket.

Editorial Writer Hong Kwon-hee (konihong@donga.com)