South Korea will set up an air and missile defense system by 2015 to protect densely populated areas like Seoul and major strategic facilities such as air bases and nuclear power plants against ballistic missile attacks from North Korea.
The government decided to establish the defense system "in view of the growing North Korean missile threat, including its 800 to 1,000 medium to long-range ballistic missiles," a government official said Friday. The project will cost W2-3 trillion (US$1=W1,091).
It represents Seoul's response to Washington's persistent demands that it join the U.S. missile defense system.
There are serious doubts over the effectiveness of the U.S. system, on which the equivalent of some W100 trillion has already been spent, and it has incurred strong protest from China. The South Korean government believes joining it will do more harm than good, but it is necessary to prepare for the North Korean missile threat. As a result, it decided to push its own system instead.
The South Korean system will be much smaller than the U.S.' It aims to intercept medium to long-range Scud or Rodong missiles with a range of less than 1,000 to 1,300 km, while the U.S. system aims at defending the U.S. mainland against intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of longer than 5,500 km from North Korea, China, Russia or Iran.
In terms of altitude and means of interception, the U.S. system consists of various kinds of weapons covering a range of altitudes between 10 and 1,000 km. They include ground-based interceptors, Aegis-launched SM-3 missiles, and the Airborne-Based Laser mounted on a converted Boeing 747 aircraft, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles and Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 missiles for low altitude defense.
The South Korean system will intercept incoming missiles with PAC-3 missiles and improved PAC-2 missiles at a low altitude ranging from 10 to 30 km, considering that it will take North Korean missiles a mere three to four minutes to reach South Korea at a low altitude.
The question is whether the South Korean system will be capable of effectively intercepting North Korean ballistic missiles, and whether it will be incorporated into the U.S. system.
The South Korean military has 48 improved PAC-2 missiles that are designed to attack aircraft, not missiles. It does not yet have PAC-3 missiles with full-scale missile interceptor capabilities, but plans to buy them after 2015.
Navy Aegis ships are capable of launching SM-3 interceptor missiles, but the military cannot afford them at the moment. The U.S. and Japan already have the SM-3. The military is also considering purchasing other interceptor missiles such as the SM-6, but its development is being delayed.
By around 2012, military authorities will set up a W280 billion-worth Israeli-made ballistic missile early warning system, and a W21 billion ballistic missile defense operations control center. That means the best the military can hope for is to lay the basic framework for missile defense by 2015.
Experts point out that South Korea will in a way or another come to depend on the U.S. missile defense system because it needs to receive information from the U.S. satellites for North Korean missile movements, and they are part of the U.S. missile defense system.