A great deal of capital is being invested in space programs around the world – with South Korea’s government ranking tenth globally, having invested $680 million (SKW 882 trillion) in such programs in 2021.
This is likely only to increase with the forthcoming 15-year Korea Positioning System (KPS) project – making Korea just the seventh country to have its own satellite positioning system. And we’re seeing major Korean companies get involved in the sector, heralding an era of ‘New Space’ backed by significant private sector, as well as government, investment.
The KPS will also bring important new technological capabilities to the private sector, especially in high growth areas such as autonomous vehicles.
But the project won’t be easy to deliver, even for a country with the technical capabilities of Korea, presenting big opportunities for international firms with the right technologies and track record.
So, what are the opportunities around the KPS, and how can western firms best access them?
In the last few years, I’ve been working with international defense and aerospace companies, advising on their Korean market entry and sales strategies – and this has given me some interesting insights into the sector.
On the face of it, space development in Korea is fueled by a self-declared drive for autonomy: the government is keen to invest in systems developed by Korean companies.
However, if Korean players are to overtake their competitors and provide unique, proven solutions to the government, it will be essential for them to acquire innovative technologies from abroad. And in no area is this more pertinent than the KPS project.
The KPS is a $2.7 billion (KRW 3.6 trillion) initiative that highlights the county’s ambition in the rapidly developing domain of space exploration, and is the largest project in the history of the Korean space program.
It is being led by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the country’s national space agency, with the support of domestic satellite manufacturers, sensor developers and ground system providers. It was officially launched by KARI this July, and industry insiders expect an RFP for companies to deliver the project to be issued in early 2023.
The KPS will comprise eight satellites, the first planned to launch in 2027. And, with the remaining satellites to be released in consecutive years after that, the Korean government plans to put them into full operation by 2035, effectively replacing the country’s current GPS.
The KPS should improve significantly on the existing US-led GPS system in terms of accuracy, reducing the positioning error dramatically from 10 meters to just 5 cm.
Need for international help
From introducing many interesting defense and aerospace technologies to large Korean players in recent years, it’s clear that a major focus - for some, the only focus - for their future growth lies in being one of the handful of prime contractors for the KPS.
And this desire has become even stronger in recent days as the KPS project gears up to start.
The most common request I’m getting from my Korean industry contacts is for help in sourcing the latest developments from overseas for the program.
“Bring us companies that can help with our bid,” I keep hearing, along with: “We want to meet companies with innovative technologies in navigation and communication sensors.”
Although Korea is strong in hardware technologies such as satellite bus systems, the country lacks sensor technologies for on-board navigation systems and analysis software tools for ground stations.
And this gap has widened in recent times, as the Korean government has rewarded hardware manufacturers with greater R&D funding to develop their capabilities further, at the expense of software and navigation systems development.
To be more specific, what the big players really want is companies which have supplied the Tier 1s for Europe’s Galileo positioning system which launched a few years ago, or those with experience delivering the US GPS satellite project.
Korean companies are risk averse by nature – especially in the space, defense and aerospace fields – and a track record in either of these projects will give them the confidence that you have the expertise they need.
And, as the tender process is about to kick off, western companies interested in being a part of the KPS project need to be engaging with the Korean industry right away.
Challenge for international companies
That said, working with Korean companies can pose a challenge for international firms.
Understanding the business culture in Korea can be tricky.
Companies can hit language barriers. Providing the right documentation in a format acceptable to Korean companies and the government can be hard. And, due to the guarded nature of the Korean defense and aerospace business, it’s difficult to navigate company structures and get in front of the right teams.
Then, once you do find the right people to talk to, knowing the best method of engagement can be another hurdle.
But all of these obstacles can be overcome with the right advice and local support in Korea.
In fact, whether your plan is to become part of a consortium or to operate as a subcontractor, having support on the ground may well be a deciding factor for winning and successfully delivering the project. Korean companies prefer communicating with people who are just a phone call away and to whom they can talk in Korean, and so building this capability early on will greatly increase your credibility.
There’s no doubt that getting into the Korean space market is an exciting, if demanding, prospect.
The good news is that we know Korean companies are searching for relevant overseas partners. And, with the KPS tender looming, the business opportunities are both large and immediate.
If you have the right technologies and experience to play a part, now is the time to get involved.
To discuss the opportunities for your business around the KPS project, contact Soyeon at firstname.lastname@example.org