Defending South Korea: The Challenge of North Korean Missiles


2012-12-23 by Richard Weitz

Ballistic missile defenses (BMD) are an urgent acquisition and development capability for South Korea. 

North Korea’s Artillery Guidance Bureau controlling some 800 mobile ballistic missiles poses a direct threat to the country. South Korea’s independent system for intercepting short- to medium-range ballistic missile, consisting of Patriot PAC-3 missiles and radars, is scheduled to be completed by 2015.

The ROK has also expressed interest in Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system, probably for both the islands along the DPRK border and for defending populated urban areas such as Seoul. While installing enough Iron Dome systems to counter a significant portion of the thousands of KPA rocket artillery stationed along the DMZ would be prohibitively expensive given the cost of each Iron Dome interceptor, the Iron Dome would help degrade the limited rocket attacks that characterized the November 2010 Yeonpyeong bombardment.

At the October 2012 44th annual U.S.-ROK Security Consultative meeting, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin told reporters afterwards that “Secretary Panetta and I reaffirmed our shared view that North Korea’s asymmetric military capabilities, such as nuclear weapons program and missiles, pose a serious threat not only to the security of the Korean Peninsula, but also to that of Northeast Asia and the world as a whole.”

Ballistic missile defenses are an urgent acquisition and development capability for South Korea.

Kim reviewed how the two governments planned to develop “concepts and principles for a bilateral deterrence strategy against North Korean nuclear and WMD threats and … to develop a tailored deterrence strategy based on these concepts and principles,” to include revising the ROK’s guidelines for developing its own offensive ballistic missiles to include longer-range systems with larger payloads.

“With regards to future missile defense,” Panetta observed at the same news conference, “that’s an area that we continue to discuss in order to make sure that we have all of the defenses necessary to deal with … the missile threat coming from North Korea, and whatever steps are necessary to try to make sure that we’re prepared for that.”

The joint communiqué the two governments issued after their meeting said that Kim “reaffirmed that the ROK will continue to improve deterrent and defensive capabilities against North Korean missile threats, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and Korean air and missile defense capabilities, and to enhance the interoperability of the Alliance’s command and control system.”

Nonetheless, in response to objections by South Korean opposition parties and Chinese officials to the ROK’s joining the U.S. regional BMD architecture, Minister Kim said that. “It is unnecessary to join (the U.S.) missile defense system….We need to first beef up defense capabilities in low-range. “ Even so, he added that South Korea and the United States should cooperate when conducting joint operations using the satellite surveillance systems, which rely mostly on U.S. intelligence.

Many South Koreans agree with the need to have an appropriate capability to shield their nation from North Korea’s missile threats, but they are concerned about the possibility that South Korea will be drawn into possible conflicts between the United States and other countries, especially China.

PRC officials and analysts claim that the defenses, though justified as a means to counter threats from the DPRK, will negatively affect China’s security in several ways — they will encourage a regional arms race, weaken China’s nuclear deterrent, and serve as a means to strengthen security Japanese and U.S. security ties with Australia, India, and Taiwan.

The United States and South Korea are now considering a joint system that would integrate the ROK’s Air and Missile Defense Cell (AMD-Cell) in Osan with the U.S. Forces Korea’s Patriot air-defense missile system.

But then it would be difficult — and costly in wasted resources — to create a firewall that would insulate that joint system from other U.S. BMD assets outside South Korea. The position of the new ROK government regarding missile defenses and related issues should become clearer after today’s national ROK elections.

It would also be logical for the ROK to continue to acquire more advanced missile defense systems. The more sophisticated SM-3 interceptors that are being deployed by Japan and the United States would give ROK BMD greater capacity to intercept DPRK missile launches during the boost and midflight phase, effectively extending the window of opportunity to target DPRK missiles.

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 already very formidable surface combats, having similar targeting, warning and control functions as other AEGIS destroyers like the U.S. Arleigh Burke and Japanese Kongo class 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 give South Korea a capacity to match — and perhaps support–Japanese naval and BMD 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, were 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 missile defense system could also presumably 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.

This complex situation puts the new ROK government in a difficult situation — how to respond to North Korea’s missile threats and contribute to its allies’ defenses while not provoking North Korea and especially the Chinese government, which is already concerned by the increasingly robust ROK security ties with Washington as well as the recent ROK decision to acquire longer-range offensive ballistic missiles.

And as South Korea would add F-35s, the integrated F-35, Patriot and Aegis solution set would provide significant enhanced coverage for South Korea against the growing threat from North Korean missiles.

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