South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is still politically popular — up to a point — although it’s not as popular as it was a decade ago. Still, I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [….]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.

[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, according to this NK News report, could be either KN-02s or a version of the KN-02 modified to extend the range to 200 kilometers. The KN-02 is North Korea’s version of the Soviet SS-21. It is highly accurate and (in its native form) nuclear capable. A range of 200 kilometers would not only give North Korea the range to hit all of Seoul, but also Camp Humphreys and Osan with whatever those rockets can carry — runway-cratering charges, chemical weapons, or biological weapons.

Bear in mind, the North Korean artillery threat against Tongduchon, Uijongbu, and Seoul was part of the reason why the Pentagon decided to move the bulk of U.S. forces and their family members south to Camp Humphreys, and to build a massive new family-friendly installation there. Now, all of those people will be in range, and both the Pentagon and the soldiers themselves will have to think carefully about the wisdom of moving American civilians there.

If North Korea now has rockets that can hit their targets that far south with reasonable precision — and the SS-21 is very accurate — that would be a game-changer in our ability to help South Korea defend itself, and it could also mean that the ROK military will soon lose its capacity to defend the population of Seoul. Indeed, even volleys of cheaper, unguided 300-millimeter rockets against southern Seoul and points south, combined with volleys of 122- and 240-millimeter rockets targeting areas further north, could overwhelm U.S. and South Korean missile defenses with sheer numbers.

[North Koreans firing a whole lot of 107mm and 122mm rockets.]

For years, it has been a popular myth that in the event of war, thousands of artillery tubes would unload on Seoul. The reality is that most of North Korea’s artillery didn’t have the range for that before Kim Jong Un’s coronation. Before the deployment of these 300-millimeter rockets, only North Korea’s 240-millimeter rockets and 170-millimeter guns could hit parts of Seoul. Now, Uijongbu — that’s another story.

At present, South Korea has no effective defense against these smaller, but potentially more numerous, rockets. Its missile defenses, such as they are, are configured to defend against larger ballistic missiles.

The recent surge of rocket tests has led some Korea-watchers to observe that South Korea needs Iron DomeIron Dome works, but it isn’t cheap — each battery costs at $50 million. Late word is that South Korea is giving Iron Dome a second look, as a result of its good performance in Israel, and (it should go without saying) the rising threat from the North:

“[South Korea] is very worried not only about rockets, but other things as well … You can certainly include them in the club of interested countries,” Yaari told Israel’s Army Radio, saying Rafael representatives had visited Seoul to promote Iron Dome. [Reuters]

But while Iron Dome may be an effective defense against small numbers of rockets fired by a rinky-dink band of terrorists like Hamas, there’s simply no way Seoul could ever afford enough Iron Dome batteries and interceptors to defend the millions of people inside the outer ring of Kyonggi-Do from thousands of inexpensive multiple-launch rockets.

The U.S. Army also uses the C-RAM system, effectively a radar-targeted gatling gun, to shoot down incoming rockets and mortars. C-RAM, however, is only 60 to 70 percent effective. That’s much less effective than Iron Dome’s 90%, but probably also much cheaper.

The only real responses, aggressive counter-battery fire and the seizure of the North Korean territory containing the hardened artillery emplacements from which the rockets are fired, would come too late. Still, the potential loss of a large slice of strategically priceless territory would not only be a tremendous deterrent, but also a novel approach to phased reunification. Call it OPLAN 5026 1/2.

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Of course, South Korea still hasn’t even deployed an effective defense against larger ballistic missiles like SCUDs — the ones that are or will soon be nuclear capable. Seoul relies on older PAC-2 Patriots, U.S.-operated PAC-3 Patriots stationed in a belt south of Seoul, and Standard missiles based on U.S. and ROK Navy ships offshore. The U.S. has been telling South Korea that it needs to upgrade to the THAAD system rather than continue to rely on U.S. taxpayers to deploy more troops and hardware, much of it based on Japanese soil. This had caused South Korea to complain that the U.S. is “badgering” it. Why? Round up the usual suspects:

Seoul’s official position is that it doesn’t want to purchase the Thaad antiballistic missile system or the Standard Missile 3, which both have a broader range and altitude to intercept short- or intermediate-range missiles from the North. That would upset both China and liberal-leaning locals who want moderate independence from the U.S. defense system. [Joongang Ilbo]

One reporter was able to get a clearer explanation of the opponents’ motives:

“China perceives the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in the East Asian region as being aimed at them,” Moon Seong-mook, a former one-star general in the South Korean army and now a research fellow at Korea Research Institute for Strategy, told CBS News. “That is why they are extremely sensitive about this issue.”

The missile systems “threaten China’s highly valued portfolio of ballistic missiles, which are important tools of Beijing’s strategy for deterring Taiwan’s independence, denying U.S. forces access to China’s coastal regions and air space, and intimidating other Asian countries such as Japan and India,” wrote Richard Weitz, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. [Samuel Songhoon Lee, CBS News]

You mean to say the Pentagon is hatching plans to protect the densely-populated capitals of its Asian treaty allies against the threat of ballistic missiles from China and its North Korean puppet? Why, the temerity. In case you want to hear it directly from the usual suspects themselves, The Hankyoreh obliges. The Russians, who recently allowed the North Koreans into Mother Russia to shop for weapons it’s banned from buying, are making similar gripes.

The latest word, not suprisingly, is that the ROK Defense Ministry may decide to buy THAAD after all. If true, that would be one step in the right direction. Meanwhile, as South Korea balks at assuming the financial and diplomatic costs of its own defense, it continues to delay the date for its assumption of wartime operational control over the Combined Forces Command from the Pentagon.

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At this point, there’s probably no way Seoul can ever deploy a complete defense against the North Korean rocket threat, although it could opt for a risk-based approach that protects certain targets against all threats, and all targets against certain threats (Only the larger ballistic missiles are likely to be nuclear capable now or soon, so there are good reasons to prioritize defenses against them).

But if South Korea ever chooses to elevate defense over tribute, I can suggest one potential source of funding for some shiny new THAAD, C-RAM, and Iron Dome batteries. According to the best estimate I know of — better ones are cordially invited — if you add up add of the aid South Korea gave North Korea between 1995 and 2006 (including Kim Dae Jung’s $500 million bribe to buy the 2000 summit with Kim Jong Il) the total amount is roughly $7 billion. The United States kicked in another $1.3 billion in aid for North Korea. This still excludes money from South Korean corporations, and of course, aid from the U.N. or other countries. All told, it’s reasonable to estimate that the U.S. and South Korea have subsidized North Korea for $10 billion or more over the last decade.

The South Korean companies that employ Kaesong’s slave laborers pay Kim Jong Un $80 million a year in “wages.” All of this money is paid directly to the North Korean government. Neither the South Korean companies that pay nor the South Korean government has no idea how North Korea spends that money. Despite my explicit invitation, the Unification Ministry can’t tell me otherwise.

The key point here for fiscal purposes is that the South Korean government subsidizes those investments at Kaesong, which means that at least some of those “wages” are an indirect inter-governmental transfer payment from Seoul to Pyongyang.

If the money isn’t going to the workers, where is it going? The South Korean government hates it when anyone asks that, but the U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has said, “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” It’s entirely possible that these subsidies paid for the rockets and missiles that now cast a lengthening shadow over South Korea.

The cost isn’t just South Korea’s, either:

The United States plans to spend about $5.8 billion over the next five years on a missile defense program designed to intercept incoming warheads from countries like North Korea, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

That means appeasing North Korea is now imposing direct risks to the security of the United States, and direct costs to U.S. taxpayers to defend their own country. This excludes the multi-billion-dollar cost the United States assumes each year to help defend South Korea, a cost that will rise as North Korea’s arsenal grows in both size and sophistication.

Today, the bill for South Korea’s (and America’s) appeasement of the North is coming due. The deterrence of North Korea, badly damaged by the failure of the U.S.-ROK alliance to respond to the attacks of 2010, will continue to erode until Seoul finds a way to counter this threat. The only true defense against Kim Jong Un’s missile build-up, however, may be the end of Kim Jong Un himself.

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Special thanks to Bruce Bechtol, and an Army friend who will remain unnamed, for their contributions to this post.


  1. “if you add up add of the aid North Korea gave South Korea between 1995 and 2006” – might wanna fix that part.


  2. Kim Jong Un has proven time and time again that he is all talk though. He gets the people of North Korea who believe his lies excited by his anti American/South Korea rhetoric and never follows through with his threats, yet no doubt he convinces his people he’s a ‘strong’ leader.

    I do have faith that the South could deal with any missile attack, the technology exists to deal with most things. The North would never have enough missiles to inflict serious damage/breach a proper defense system.

    Not to mention the North Korean military is several decades behind most first world countries as far as technology is concerned. If war were ever to occur, the South would easily establish air superiority with the Americans help. Pyongyang wouldn’t stand much of a chance, nor would any of his military bases.


  3. @Matthew:
    “He gets the people of North Korea who believe his lies excited by his anti American/South Korea rhetoric and never follows through with his threats”
    Except for that one time he shelled a South Korean island. Or sank a South Korean warship (granted, not necessarily him per se, but I have confidence someone named Kim was).

    The problem with writing off the Nork’s chances of doing something incredibly stupid is we don’t know a lot about how they come to decisions or even who is involved in those decisions and what factors influence that process. I do not think anything the West (broadly definable as the US, ROK, Japan, Europe, and other like-minded countries) does has any real impact in the Nork’s decision-making (we can raise the cost of decisions by closing down places like Banco Delta Asia, but that won’t stop them from making those choices). Heck, I don’t even know that China has any real impact on the Nork’s decisions (though they certainly have more influence than we do).

    North Korea may know they would be destroyed if they attacked the ROK…but that’s not a guarantee they wouldn’t do it anyway (especially in a Gotterdammerung situation where the Kim regime think it’s going to fall anyway, and figures, hey, why not? At least we’ll take a lot of people with us).

    For reference’s sake, the last time we had to deal with people who thought like the Norks do, we had to nuke them (twice) to get them to stop. And the Japanese in 1941 both did not want to go to war with the US if they could possibly avoid and knew that the would most likely lose a war if hostilities broke out-they still ended up going to war with us. People may be rational, but they don’t always act that way.