The Korea Herald


Defense bolstered a year after N.K. shelling of island

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 13, 2011 - 19:48

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Since North Korea shelled Yeonpyeongdo a year ago, South Korea has adopted a more aggressive military strategy and beefed up its capabilities to defend the northwestern border islands with more personnel and high-tech military equipment.

The Nov. 23 attack was another stark reminder that Seoul and Pyongyang remain technically at war, prompting exhaustive soul-searching from South Korea over how to better cope with military threats from the belligerent state.

The unprecedented incident that killed two marines and two civilians strengthened the specter of another war at the time as it came just eight months after the North’s torpedo attack that took the lives of 46 sailors.

The major change in its wake is that Seoul has paid more attention to the possibility of the North attacking civilian-inhabited areas and other various scenarios of provocations by the unpredictable state.

It had previously focused its operations near the frontline islands primarily to protect the Northern Limit Line as most skirmishes between the two had occurred near the de facto sea border, dubbed the tinderbox of the peninsula.

The North has refused to recognize the NLL, arguing it was unilaterally drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

As part of the efforts to better safeguard the five border islands, Seoul established a special command in June. The 5,000-strong command is headed by the three-star commandant of the Marine Corps.

Under the current rule, when the North launches a provocation, the command will lead military operations on the border islands and in their coastal areas with naval, army and air support if necessary.

But if a provocation occurs around the sea border area, the Navy will control the maritime operations.

Previously, the command was to protect the islands and areas within two-kilometers of the coast during peacetime or when low-intensity conflicts occurred. The Navy was to take charge of the areas outside the two-kilometer distance.

The change to the rule was made as critics argued that there were cases in which the Marine commandant cannot lead military operations even when a provocation clearly targets border islands under his responsibility.

Another change since the shelling is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has delegated to the air force operations commander his authority to order the military to load air-to-surface missiles onto fighter jets.

It came after criticism surfaced that F-15K fighter jets were deployed to the scene of the Nov. 23 shelling without any air-to-ground missiles loaded.

The transfer of the authority was expected to ensure more prompt aerial operations using combat aircraft. But critics pointed out that as the authority to give the order to fire the missiles is still in the hands of the JCS chairman, aerial operations may not proceed as swiftly as it should in the event of a crisis.

As more capable weapons systems are added for the islands, the South Korean military’s operational range there has been extended to cover not only costal areas in the North, but also some of the inland areas.

Seoul has deployed a set of multiple launch rocket systems and cobra attack helicopters on Yeonpyeongdo and Baengnyeongdo.

The Korean-made Guryong MLRS is a formidable tool that can effectively counter threats from North Korea’s 122 mm multiple launch rocket systems. The system with a range of 23-36 kilometers carries 36 130-mm rocket launchers on a five-ton military truck.

The cobra helicopter with a maximum speed of 351 kilometers per hour can be utilized to deal with North Korean hovercrafts that can travel toward the border islands at a speed of around 74-96 kilometers per hour.

Despite the increase in the weapons systems on the islands, experts said that there should be effective measures to deal with possible nighttime infiltrations by North Korea’s hovercrafts. They can reach Baengnyeongdo within 30-40 hours from their coasts with some 30-50 troops aboard each of them.

Although the cobra helicopter has been deployed to the island, experts noted that it has limits in its operations under adverse weather, and that it is not equipped with precision-guided weapons.

Some experts, thus, stressed that the military should deploy short-range guided missiles on the islands, which will enable the troops to more quickly strike back to eliminate the origin of the provocations.

To strengthen artillery detection capabilities, the military has deployed the “Hostile Artillery Locator.” In case of an attack, the HALO system locates where the artillery sound originates. It can detect an artillery sound from some 30 kilometers away and its success rate of detection is known to be near 90 percent.

To deal with a possible attack using North Korea’s artillery pieces hidden in mountain caves, Seoul reportedly plans to purchase some 50 Israeli-made Spike None-Line of Sight missiles in the latter half of next year.

The GPS-guided Spike NLOS with its range of 25 kilometers can hit the hidden artillery pieces in the North, which are located some 10-20 kilometers away from the border islands.

By Song Sang-ho (