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Korean plan sparks speculation about U.S. missile defense

The Defense Ministry’s rare unveiling this week of the country’s missile defense concept has sparked speculation that it is setting the mood for purchasing a U.S.-made advanced missile program to handle North Korea’s threats.

The ministry on Tuesday outlined its low-tier missile interception system, saying that a North Korean ballistic missile can be detected some 40 seconds after lift-off first by the U.S. early warning satellite.

It said that without it, it would take at least 100 seconds to detect a hostile missile launch with its ground-based Israeli-made Green Pine early warning radar system and Aegis ship-based radars.

While highlighting the importance of intelligence cooperation with the U.S., the ministry alluded to the need to upgrade its current Patriot Advanced Capability-2, which has an accuracy rate of below 40 percent.

The South has deployed German-made PAC-2 missiles since 2009 following its decision in 2007 to purchase 48 of them with a budget of 1 trillion won ($9.17 billion).

The missiles with fragmentation-type warheads are less lethal than the U.S.-made PAC-3 with warheads employing “hit-to-kill” technology. The accuracy rate of the PAC-3 system stands at around 80-90 percent.

In the late 2000s, Seoul considered purchasing PAC-3 systems but could not push for it due to budgetary constraints and critics’ argument that the program would be a prelude to Seoul’s participation in the U.S-led global ballistic missile defense shield.

The ministry’s apparent reference to the need for more advanced PAC-3 systems has reignited speculation that Seoul is learning toward joining the U.S. missile defense, despite its repeated denials.

The PAC-3 system along with a ship-based missile system, called the Standard Missile-3, is part of the core components of America’s missile defense strategy.

Seoul has long remained reluctant to join the U.S. MD program as it could provoke not only Pyongyang but also China given that Washington has been rebalancing its military priorities toward the Asia-Pacific in what analysts say is a move to keep China in check.

Some observers argue that as Japan has been in close coordination with the U.S. over the MD program, Washington may feel uneasy about South Korea being indecisive over the missile cooperation.

As critics continuously suspect Seoul is moving to join the U.S. MD, the ministry has stressed that it was an “independent” low-tier “Korea Air Missile Defense system” different from the comprehensive global missile defense program.

The KAMD system tailored for South Korean terrain is designed to intercept hostile missiles or combat aircraft at an altitude of 10-30 kilometers.

The U.S.-led missile shield, however, aims to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles heading toward its mainland with ground-based interceptors for high-altitude targets, ship-based Standard Missile 3 for mid-altitude targets or Patriot Advanced Capability-3 for low-altitude missions.

The North has remained a constant security concern not only for the South, but also for Japan and the U.S.

Pyongyang’s Taepodong-2 missile under development is presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 km, enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still short of reaching the U.S. mainland. The missile’s tests have so far failed.

The longest-range North Korean ballistic missile, deployed since 2007, is the Musudan missile with a range of 3,000-4,000 km. This missile, in theory, brings Guam, a key U.S. strategic base in the Asia-Pacific region, within its range.

At the annual Security Consultative Meeting held in Washington on Oct. 24, the allies agreed to bolster their missile defense cooperation.

Military officials say that intelligence cooperation is crucial between the South’s Air and Missile Defense-Cell and the U.S. Forces Korea’s Theater Missile Defense-Cell. The two bodies are missile interception control centers for the allies.

Experts argue that the South may need to seek a more complete missile defense program rather than focusing on only interceptors given that it lacks intelligence-gathering capabilities.

By Song Sang-ho  (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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