The Korea Herald


Questions linger over defense against NK nukes

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Oct. 6, 2016 - 17:17

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Despite the envisioned deployment of an anti-missile system here, doubts linger over South Korea’s defense capacity in the face of ever-growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

Defense Minister Han Min-koo touts that the military’s own three-legged defense system, along with the upcoming US-provided missile shield, would be able to neutralize the North’s armed capacity, but not all seem convinced.

The “3Ks”

“Our military is maintaining firm readiness against any provocations from the North, based on the strength of the strong South Korea-US alliance,” Han said during a parliamentary audit Wednesday.

He reaffirmed the military’s will to dispatch and operate the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system by 2017, while vowing to step up efforts to establish Korea’s homegrown defense program -- the “3Ks.”

The “Kill Chain” is about striking North Korean missiles before they are fired, the Korea Air and Missile Defense system, or “KAMD,” intercepts missiles in the air and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, “KMPR,” would wipe out the North Korean leadership in an immediate response.

Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the minor opposition Justice Party raised doubts over whether the first-stage response would work, pointing out that most of Kill Chain’s 9 trillion won ($8.1 billion) budget is being used to acquire ballistic and cruise missiles.

These are known to be effective against fixed targets, as opposed to the North’s transporter erector launchers or underground tunnels that will likely be used in case of an actual missile attack.

The KMPR has also been questioned.
North Korean army officers and soldiers attend a rally at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 13 in celebration of the country's recent nuclear test. (Yonhap) North Korean army officers and soldiers attend a rally at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 13 in celebration of the country's recent nuclear test. (Yonhap)
Announced Sept. 9, on the heels of Pyongyang’s second nuclear test this year and its fifth overall, the system envisions the South launching a full-fledged strike at the North regime in case there are signs of an imminent attack. For this, the ministry said it is developing conventional bombs as “considerable weapons.”

“Should the North threaten to use nuclear weapons, we will use sophisticated guided weapon system to strike its missile and launching facilities. ... We will also use US nuclear capacities for retaliation,” said a military general, explaining the concept of the 3Ks system.

But, experts say the Seoul-Washington agreement on missiles -- restricting the maximum payload of Korean missiles to an 800-kilometer range and 500 kilograms -- would make it “virtually impossible” to strike the North if they take refuge in underground bunkers.

It is also uncertain if the military’s intelligence itself is getting accurate information.

In August, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected one ballistic missile fired into the East Sea. But the US Strategic Command said hours later that it detected two missiles. 

THAAD may not be enough  

The North’s successful test-firing of a submarine-launched KN-11 ballistic missile in August has sparked doubts over the envisioned THAAD.

THAAD reportedly can cover up to a 120 degree azimuth, with its range maxing out at 200 kilometers in front and 100 kilometers behind it. It means it is likely to have difficulty defending against ballistic missiles fired from a submarine.

Although the North is believed to have only one submarine that can only fire one missile, the North Korea monitoring website 38 North said recently that satellite images indicate it is building larger submarines for SLBM launches.

South Korea is planning to deploy the next generation Jangbogo-3 submarines, a 3,000-ton class with a multiple vertical launching system, starting in the 2020s.

But according to data by Rep. Kim, the ratio of noncommissioned officers applications to work in submarines has hovered at around 60 percent in the past 10 years. This is due to poor working conditions that include noise, stress and prolonged working hours, according to the military.

Kim predicted the shortage will be worse as the military is expected to operate the older Jangbogo-1 for five to 10 more years.

Apart from having difficulty against the SLBMs, some experts question how effective the THAAD system will be in defending against ballistic missiles in general.

Theodore A. Postol, professor of science, technology and national security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told media that THAAD will have problems distinguishing incoming rockets and simple decoys.

By cutting the warhead into pieces, Pyongyang can send numerous decoys that will distract the THAAD’s radars from focusing on the actual warhead.

“The THAAD defense can be expected to provide South Korea with ... no useful defense capacity,” he was quoted as saying, adding the deployment puts South Korea at odds with China in a decision “that has no merit.”

As the Kim regime grows ever more belligerent, the reaction from South Korea has grown more hostile as well. Political hawks have raised their voices to deploy nuclear submarines or even nuclear weapons in the country, while the newly applied operation plan 5015 has plans for pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang.

The military’s KMPR itself also encompasses striking the Kim regime first, in case there are signs of imminent attack.

Maj. Gen. Urs Gerber, the Swiss delegation head of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at Panmunjom truce village, recently told local media that the annual joint military drills by allies have not been “100 percent defensive and deterrent.” 

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, pointed out that the joint drills have grown progressively more aggressive since the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.

By Yoon Min-sik (