North Korea’s Missile Crisis: The South’s Response


By Richard Weitz

From the perspective of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its allies, the situation on the Peninsula is extremely unsettling.

The DPRK looks set to resume testing its nuclear weapons as well as test launch more long-range ballistic missiles. Together, these capabilities could render the continental United States newly vulnerable to a direct North Korean nuclear attack. U.S. officials are striving to avoid a mutual deterrent relationship between an aggressive and unpredictable DPRK regime and the United States.

And it goes without saying that we are a long way from the verifiable and irreversible elimination of the DPRK nuclear program.

Even under its new leadership, the DPRK has kept up its belligerent attack on the South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak and his “anti-national, traitorous gang.” For its part, the Lee government has not formally withdrawn an earlier demand that the DPRK apologize for its 2010 provocations. Further DPRK provocations on the Peninsula could escalate into a major war given the Republic of Korea’s new policy of retaliating more directly to DPRK outrages.

The worst scenario would see the DPRK leadership, thinking that their nuclear and missile arsenals would protect them by deterring potential counterattacks, launching another provocation only to trigger the massive and prompt response posited in the new ROK strategy. The DPRK might respond by detonating a nuclear device in order to shock the ROK and its foreign allies into de-escalating the crisis. Or it might simply bombard Seoul and its environs with the enormous number of artillery systems that the DPRK has amassed in the border region.

Besides the millions of Koreans affected by this military exchange, the tens of thousands of American soldiers and civilians in South Korea could also be affected.

Ballistic missile defense (BMD) are already an urgent acquisition and development capability for South Korea due to North Korea’s Artillery Guidance Bureau controlling eight hundred mobile ballistic missiles ranging the entire Peninsula.

It would be logical for the ROK to continue to acquire more advanced missile defense systems. The SM-3 antiballistic missile can be targeted against even satellites, as shown by the USS Lake Erie destroying the errant USA 193 spy satellite. Credit Image: Bigstock

South Korea at present possesses capable anti-ballistic missiles in the Patriot PAC-3 missiles and Standard SM-2 Block III naval missiles.

It would be logical for the ROK to continue to acquire more advanced missile defense systems. The SM-3 antiballistic missile can be targeted against even satellites, as shown by the USS Lake Erie destroying the errant USA 193 spy satellite.

The SM-3 would give ROK BMD efforts a high degree of mobility to intercept DPRK missile launches during the boost and midflight phase, effectively extending the window of opportunity to target DPRK missiles. The SM-3 can also destroy any future DPRK satellites in the remote event that North Korea conducted a successful launch.

The Sejong the Great class Destroyers have already been equipped with the AEGIS combat management system, Baseline 7 Phase 1, and have 80 vertical launch system (VLS) cells for SM-2 SAMs, as well as 16 antisubmarine missiles, 16 SSM-700K anti-ship missiles and 36 Hyunmoo III cruise missiles.

The Sejong the Great Destroyers are formidable surface combats, having similar targeting, warning and control functions as other AEGIS destroyers like the American Arleigh Burke and Japanese Kongo destroyers. Intriguingly, the Sejong the Great and the Atago were both launched in 2007. Given the fundamental lack of military cooperation between Japan and South Korea, the close timeframe of building those two destroyers suggests a South Korean desire to match Japanese naval capabilities.

The AEGIS combat management system would benefit from the AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System, which improves the AEGIS capability to detect and destroy ballistic missile.

That upgrade, where it offered to South Korea and taken up, would allow the ROK to address the potential threat of anti-ship ballistic missiles, which China has taken the lead in developing. The AEGIS system could also benefit from upgrading the passive phased array AN/SPY-1 to the more multifunction, dual X and S band AN/SPY-3 AESA radar modified for retrofitting onto AEGIS systems to further enhance ballistic missile detection and tracking.

The ROK has expressed interest in the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system, probably for both the islands and general Seoul area. The Iron Dome system has been used to intercept Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip in April 2011. While installing enough Iron Dome systems to counter a significant portion of the thousands of DPRK rocket artillery stationed along the DMZ would be prohibitively expensive given the cost of each Iron Dome missile to be $34,000, the Iron Dome would be useful for degrading the limited rocket attacks that characterized the November 2010 Yeonpyeong bombardment.

South Korea’s independent missile defense system for intercepting short- to medium-range ballistic missile, consisting of Patriot PAC-3 missiles and radars, is scheduled to be completed by 2015. These systems are urgently needed to protect Seoul and the rest of South Korea from the DPRK’s arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles, which are estimated to number several hundred. The ROK missile defense system could also presumably feed telemetry data and ballistic paths to U.S. and Japanese missile defense systems, which is important because of the USAF and USN bases on Japanese soil that the United States would deploy forces from during a major Korean contingency.

ROK defense firms are also incorporating Russia’s traditionally leading-edge surface-to-air missile (SAM) technologies into their own systems. Samsung Thales, a joint venture between the ROK heavy industry conglomerate Samsung Group and French electronics defense contractor Thales Group, is developing a medium-to-long range surface-to-air missile, the M-SAM Cheolmae-2, for the ROK military. The system is designed to engage both ballistic missiles and aircraft.  The M-SAM will use S-400 missile technology provided from the Almaz Antey Joint Stock Company, including proprietary information from the S-400’s multifunction X-band radar. LG Corp’s missiles’ guidance systems are expected to also use Russian design elements.

As in other cases, Russia’s armed sales policy regarding the Koreas could conflict with its political-military strategy for the region. The immediate purpose of South Korea’s missile defense systems is to counter the several hundred short-range ballistic missiles North Korea has aimed at Seoul and Pusan, South Korea’s two largest cities. The Russian government has no objection to the ROK’s using Russian and other air defense technologies to counter this threat.

But South Korea’s close alliance with the United States means that ROK missile defenses could also help defend U.S. forces in South Korea and perhaps elsewhere from missile attack.

Russia’s main concern is probably that the ROK will seek to integrate its missile defenses with those of the United States and Japan. The North Koreans would likely respond by further expanding their own missile arsenal, which in turn could threaten Russia directly, through an errant missile launch landing on Russian territory, and indirectly, by leading to further missile defense cooperation between the United States and its East Asian allies. The resulting missile defense network could then help counter the offensive missile forces of China and Russia.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made these Russian concerns evident when he visited Seoul in April 2009, telling the media that, “I hope that no one would … use the situation around North Korea to set up alliances, build missile defense networks or announce an intention to possess nuclear weapons.”  The benefits from this increased defense cooperation could also be used to increase the capacity of the U.S. ballistic missile defense systems planned for deployment in Europe. Although NATO and Russia have formally agreed to consider collaborating on missile defense, many Russian policy makers still worry that the U.S. missile defense systems in Europe can be used to degrade the credibility of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Another Russian concern is that South Korea is seeking U.S. permission and assistance to develop and deploy its own strike weapons, including a longer-range ballistic missile that could reach targets in Russia as well as China and North Korea. Currently an agreement with the United States prevents the ROK from deploying ballistic missiles with ranges longer than 300 kilometers or with a payload greater than 500 kilograms. South Korean officials are now seeking permission to deploy ballistic missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers and a payload ceiling of 1 ton.

Although relations between Russia and South Korea are currently their best in history, Russian defense planners would need to consider the increased threat to the Russian Far East should they ever deteriorate again. Indeed, the military technology South Korea has recently been seeking and acquiring from Russia indicates Seoul’s interest in developing its power projection capabilities.

From Seoul’s perspective, it would be more prudent to rely on U.S, Japanese, and other Western sources of BMD technology and assistance and to further upgrade their capability to defend their country and the region.

For a look at how the F-35 and Aegis combination would significantly accelerate the capability of dealing with regional threats see