A comprehensive strategy first
North Korea is estimated to have about 1,000 ballistic missiles, and more than two-thirds of them are Scud missiles with a range of up to 700 kilometers (435 miles), designed to target South Korea.
When the North launches a Rodong missile, which has 1,300-kilometer range, it can potentially raise the altitude or increase the weight of the warhead to adjust its range to cover the southern region of South Korea.
South Korea’s defense against the North’s missiles is a hit-to-kill approach at low altitude. A missile attack has three stages. The first is the launch, the second is its flight upward and the third is its descent to hit a target.
Low-altitude defense involves taking down a missile while it is descending, meaning it only has one chance to shoot it down. Unless the system has 100 percent accuracy, this is an awful reality. The Kill Chain and the Korea Air Missile Defense system, currently under development, are all low-altitude programs, and even if they will be operationally deployed by mid-2020, there won’t be a significant change to that reality.
That is why we need a multi-layer defense system. When interception at high altitude fails, another attempt can be made at the descending stage. Currently, the South’s missile defense system is designed to use PAC-2 missiles, and intercepting a Scud or a Rodong missile with a PAC-2 is like attempting to catch a hawk with a butterfly net.
The Scud missile flies about 300 kilometers at an altitude of 70 to 100 kilometers. The PAC-2 missile’s altitude is 20 to 30 kilometers and the PAC-3 - which will be introduced in 2016 - has an altitude of less than 40 kilometers.
Because their “arms” are too short, they cannot reach enemy missiles. The military said PAC-3 has an accuracy of 50 to 70 percent, but that is also an exaggeration.
Under these circumstances, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, better known as Thaad, emerged as a solution. Just as its name suggests, the system takes down an enemy missile at an altitude of 70 to 150 kilometers. This means its arm has a longer reach. When it fails to shoot down the target at a high altitude, Thaad tries to intercept it again when it is descending. That’s why it’s called a multi-layer missile defense.
China is the most concerned about the Thaad system’s X-band radar. In an inter-Korean confrontation, the radar monitors the movements of North Korean missile units and informs the operational control center when an abnormal sign is detected. When the sign is concluded clearly as a preparation to launch a missile, a preemptive strike takes place against the missile base.
China cannot tolerate the X-band radar in Pyeongtaek monitoring in real time the inter-continental ballistic missile base in the Liaoning Province across the Yellow Sea.
For a Chinese inter-continental ballistic missile flying toward the North Pole, interception by Thaad in Pyeongtaek doesn’t mean anything.
China doesn’t buy the explanation that Thaad will be deployed to the South only to target the North, and perhaps this is why the United States desperately wants to deploy the system in the South. Only then will the missile defense network linking South Korea, Guam and the United Arab Emirates to monitor China’s missile programs be complete.
North Korea is currently developing - or has completed developing - nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons, better known as nuclear EMPs. They are based on the former Soviet program that was leaked to China and the North after the fall of the U.S.S.R. A nuclear EMP does not directly attack a target on the ground, but explodes in midair and destroys all electronic equipments in range. This is a typical ultra-modern weapon.
When one nuclear EMP is detonated above the Korean Peninsula, it will immediately paralyze our abilities to fight a war, as we are heavily dependent upon electronic systems. Additionally, all life that relies on electronic equipment would cease, turning back the clock to a primeval period. This is a completely different concept of nuclear weapon from conventional nuclear arms.
After North Korea’s successful inter-continental ballistic Taepodong missile test in 2012 and its third nuclear test in February 2013, we should have changed our ballistic missile defense system. But we are still focusing all our energy on missile defense and the possible deployment of Thaad, although their effects are limited.
The North’s nuclear and missile technologies are evolving fast, and this development is forcing the South to create a comprehensive system of ballistic missile defense. And yet, the military is focused on introducing some specific weapons and feeding the arms dealers who are parasitic to those deals.
The military-industrial complex of the United States will continue to pressure the South to buy newly developed, expensive individual weapons systems. We must remain cool-headed and introduce only those systems that will serve the ballistic missile defense regime that is inclusive of politics, economy, security and military based on our own judgment.
In order to establish a ballistic missile defense system, a comprehensive security strategy that includes politics, economy, foreign affairs and military must first be created, and a military strategy should be established based on it. And then, purchase of each individual weapon to serve the strategy should be decided.
Whether we will accept the U.S. deployment of Thaad should be decided within this framework. This is not a matter of accepting either a U.S. or Chinese demand. Taking into account North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s obsession in the nuclear and missile development, we must hurry to complete the missile interception network. Although our missiles may have low accuracy, they need to be deployed in tight layers.
But a wiser choice will be improving the inter-Korean relations to remove the need for a ballistic missile defense system, including Thaad. After joint military drills between the United States and South Korea, an opportunity will come. During her remaining three years in office, President Park Geun-hye must bring about a quality change in inter-Korean relations.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 6, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie