SEOUL — North Korean advances in missile technology, exemplified by a new rocket launched Sunday, have raised questions here as to whether existing defenses are adequate.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service did not foresee the launch, the agency acknowledged Tuesday in a report to the National Assembly. The rocket apparently blasted off at an 89-degree angle, reaching an altitude of about 550km and traveling a distance of about 500km before falling into the Sea of Japan.
The rocket is estimated to have a roughly 2,500km range if fired at a regular angle but could potentially cover an even greater distance. This is farther than the Rodong missile, which with a range of 1,300km can reach almost anywhere in Japanese territory. The South Korean military categorizes the new rocket as a medium-range missile, capable of flying from 2,500km to 5,500km.
It takes roughly two hours to pump liquid fuel into rockets, making launch preparations easy to detect via satellite. But Pyongyang’s latest missile uses solid fuel, which can be loaded in just five to 10 minutes. This, coupled with mobile launchers, makes the new missile extremely difficult to spot and strike pre-emptively.
South Korea has a three-tier defense system against North Korean missiles. The first is its Kill Chain, which includes pre-emptive attacks on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities to ensure that the weapons do not reach South Korean soil.
Lawmakers from the conservative ruling Liberty Korea Party, previously the Saenuri Party, voiced concerns Tuesday that pre-emptive attacks against the new solid-fuel rocket would not be possible. But Defense Minister Han Min-koo indicated the government’s intention to hold on to Kill Chain as a missile defense option.
Meanwhile, the South Korean military is said to be concerned that Pyongyang’s latest technology could also be used with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Missile defense has become a greater focus amid recent developments. Though Seoul has plans to build its own Korean Air and Missile Defense system, it will not be able to shoot down the new North Korean missile, which apparently hit Mach 8.5 during Sunday’s test launch. This will likely make the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to American forces in South Korea, which Seoul wants by the end of the year, even more necessary.
But some liberal opposition members are trying to block moves to bolster the defenses, arguing that North Korea will probably not fire medium-range missiles on the South. They are likely taking into account vehement opposition to THAAD by Beijing, which fears that the system could also be used to monitor China’s missile bases.
South Korea could hold a presidential election as early as April or May, depending on the Constitutional Court’s ruling on President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea argues that the next administration should make the final decision on THAAD deployment. He has also criticized a military-intelligence-sharing pact signed with Japan in November.
“I want to work closely with the U.S. and South Korea to gather and analyze the necessary information,” Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said during a Tuesday news conference. But cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul is on thin ice following the recent installation of a statue representing wartime “comfort women” in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan, which prompted Japan to recall its ambassador to South Korea.
“The South Korean military is sensitive to politics,” a member of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces said. “If the new administration is strongly anti-Japan, bilateral cooperation could suffer.”