South Korea boosting missile capabilities amid rising threats

South Korea boosting missile capabilities amid rising threats

Felix Kim

South Korea is enhancing its ballistic missile capability to deter and defend against a growing missile threat from North Korea, as well as potential missile threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. Analysts say the upgrades will be part of a multilayered defense in conjunction with existing missiles and missile defense systems, and the defense capabilities of the nation’s ally, the United States.

“North Korea has been expanding its own missile capabilities, adding accuracy and capability with its recent KN-23 ballistic missile with a range of 400 to 600 kilometers in hopes of overwhelming the ROK’s [Republic of Korea’s] missile defenses,” Dr. Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the Rand Corp., told FORUM, referring to South Korea by its official name. This necessitates an enhanced, balanced defensive capability for South Korea, he added, particularly given North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

“Our military will continue to develop a variety of long-range, ultra-precision and high-power ballistic missiles that can overwhelm the enemy,” South Korean National Defense Minister Suh Wook said at an April 1, 2022, ceremony for the reorganization of the ROK Army Missile Strategic Command.

The ROK military is testing new missiles including a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a long-range air-to-surface missile, a supersonic cruise missile and a high-powered ballistic missile, according to the National Defense Ministry. (Pictured: The Republic of Korea Armed Forces launches its Army Tactical Missile System during a military exercise in March 2022.)

“A balanced defense means being able to destroy some [North Korean] missiles before they launch to reduce their number,” Bennett said. That would reduce the burden on South Korea’s batteries of interceptor missiles, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Patriot systems, while protecting the systems against being overwhelmed.

South Korea’s new high-powered ballistic missile has a longer range and more powerful warhead than its predecessors, capabilities enabled by the recent removal of guidelines that limited missile range and payload. “When launched in parallel with the new long-range but slower cruise missiles, they could destroy many North Korean missiles on the ground, both in their silos and in storage,” Bennett said.

Recent acquisitions such as four U.S.-made Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft and smaller domestically manufactured surveillance drones, coupled with shared intelligence from the U.S., boost South Korea’s ability to locate enemy missiles, he said.

Longer-range missiles are also needed to deter potential threats from beyond the Korean Peninsula, Bennett said, including from an aggressive PRC and Russia.

SLBMs are vital to deterrence and defense because of their survivability. “North Korea doesn’t really have much of an ability to take out South Korean submarines,” Bennett said, meaning South Korea’s SLBMs could continue to operate even if its land-based missiles were disabled.

The U.S.’s defense assets on the peninsula, including aircraft and cruise missiles, augment South Korea’s defense capability. “You do this not only to increase capacity, but to also hedge against the capability of North Korea,” Bennett said of South Korea’s multilayered defense. “You give yourself more diversity and, therefore, more reliability of defense.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.