16 October 2013
Defense ministry could be buying into US missile defense system
By Kim Kyu-won, staff reporter
The Hanyoreh


With expected OPCON delay, it appears more likely S. Korea will join US system, which could contribute to regional tensions

The Ministry of National Defense seems to be considering the purchase of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which is a key part of the US missile defense system.

After US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that there must be interoperability between the US and South Korean missile defense systems during the US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting held on Oct. 2, concerns are being voiced that the expected joining of the US missile defense system is becoming a reality.

“Below 100km in elevation is referred to as low-altitude defense,” said ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok during the regular press briefing at the Ministry of National Defense on Oct. 15.

“In order to enhance our ability to intercept North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, we are reviewing a variety of options that would enable overlapping protection at a low-altitude (40km) during the missile’s terminal phase.”

Kim also noted, “since the Patriot 3 (PAC-3) generally intercepts projectiles at an altitude of 15km, exact interception is not easy and failure could result in a tragic loss of life.”

The spokesperson said that South Korea needs a system that is capable of double interception during a missile’s descent, once at high- or mid-range altitude and once at low altitude.

Until this point, the Ministry of National Defense and the military had addressed objections to South Korean participation in US missile defense by explaining that the objective of the South Korean missile defense system is low-altitude defense during its terminal phase, at altitudes lower than 40km.

As such, they had said, it is different from US missile defense, which aims to intercept ICBMs during their boost, midcourse and terminal phases. Thus, South Korea need not take part in US-led missile defense.

But it appears that South Korean military leaders changed their minds after the US and South Korea agreed to reconsider the timing of the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) during the US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting on Oct. 2.

Currently, the ROK military is developing the L-SAM (long-range surface-to-air missile) as a new system for intercepting missiles in their terminal phase.

Along with this, it appears to be reviewing the option of fielding the US THAAD system, which can intercept missiles at an altitude of 40 to 150 km.

When asked about the types of new interception systems, Kim answered more specifically than usual. “THAAD is something that we could consider, but the SM-3, which targets missiles at an altitude of 400-500km, would be excluded.”

In connection with fielding the weaponry that is required for the OPCON transfer, South Korea’s deployment of THAAD coincides exactly with US military and economic interests.

During the Security Consultative Meeting on Oct. 2, Hagel said, “the South Korean and US missile defense systems don’t have to be identical as long as they are interoperable.”

In connection with OPCON transfer to South Korea, Hagel said on Sep. 28 that missile defense would obviously be “a huge part of this.”

The issue is that THAAD is a key part of the US missile defense. If South Korea deploys this technology, it could gain a higher level of interoperability with the US missile defense system.

It is especially problematic that North Korea, China, and Russia might decide that South Korea has effectively been integrated into US missile defense.

If this happens, it could produce a situation where South Korea is pitted against China and Russia, even though there is no special reason for military tension with these countries.

China is believed to be the primary objective of US missile defense in East Asia, with Russia and North Korea as secondary targets.

Because of such issues, there are also analysts inside the South Korean military who believe that, even if South Korea is set on developing a new double interception system, it should think carefully before purchasing weapons from the US, as this could make countries in the region nervous.

In addition, the THAAD military system is an expensive weapon that would put a considerable strain on the nation’s budget. Setting up a single THAAD battery would cost 1 trillion won (US$939 billion).

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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