Defense capabilities re-examined after test

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Defense capabilities re-examined after test

After Pyongyang discreetly conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, analysts have begun pointing to flaws in South Korea’s “Kill Chain” system, designed to eliminate North Korean threats before they are launched.

Gen. Lee Sun-jin, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of the United States Forces Korea, visited the Korean Air Force Operations Command of the U.S. Seventh Air Force in Osan, Gyeonggi, on Monday for an inspection amid military tensions following the incident.

“There is a likelihood that the North Korean military may carry out additional provocations in order to overcome the current situation,” Lee said, adding that all the country’s defense capabilities must be concentrated on keeping North Korea in check.

But despite such warnings, some defense experts are doubtful that the South could even detect North Korea’s next move.

After announcing that Pyongyang had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, North Korean state television reported that the regime’s leader Kim Jong-un had issued the order for a nuclear test on Dec. 15.

He gave the final OK on Jan. 3, and the nuclear test was conducted three days later.

Yet, despite 22 days passing from Kim’s initial order until the nuclear test was carried out, human intelligence resources were unable to detect any progress, which has resulted in backlash on Seoul’s presumably limited ability to track and monitor movement at North Korea’s nuclear test site.

“It’s like the level of our ability to detect and analyze the North has been exposed,” a JCS official admitted.

Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, acknowledged that it would not be easy to detect an additional surprise attack.

“Without the ability to detect,” Yang said, “our defense system collapses, so it is a priority to obtain such an ability.”

The Kill Chain is an integrated information, surveillance and pre-emptive strike system designed to precisely eliminate North Korean threats before they are launched; it is expected to be completed by early 2020, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

The system is similar to the U.S. 4D operation plan - “detect, disrupt, destroy and defense” - intended to preemptively take out the North’s missile and nuclear threats.

With the 4D operation plan, the United States and South Korea intend to preemptively take out the North’s missile and nuclear threats via the Kill Chain.

But with Pyongyang determined to keep its movements hidden, it remains questionable just how effective the Kill Chain system could be, especially when North Korea’s hard-to-track mobile launchers are used underground.

“The Kill Chain happens in four stages: detection, identification, decision to attack and strike,” said Shin In-kyun, a military expert who heads the Korea Defense Network. “But if the first step of detection is not properly achieved, it cannot be used to its full capacity.”

The North Korean Army’s Strategic Rocket Force Command, with three missile divisions, most recently deployed three Hwaseong - its version of Scud ballistic missiles - to its mobile launchers. Part of Pyongyang’s military strategy is also to build its military facilities underground.

“Like the United States Intelligence Community ... we also need to enforce sharing of intelligence and raise the capability of our human intelligence resources,” Yang said.

BY HYUN IL-HOON, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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