Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a National Assembly audit on Monday that he would "research and consider multi-level defense measures" involving SM-3 interceptor missiles that form the core of the U.S.-led missile defense programs.
The missiles could destroy North Korean ballistic missiles at an altitude of 150 km, requiring more powerful radars and trillions of won in additional military spending.
Until now, the government has claimed confidently that Seoul is capable of intercepting North Korean ballistic missiles by using its domestic missile defense system consisting of PAC-3 Patriot missiles, which intercept incoming missiles at much lower altitudes of 10 to 15 km, when the projectiles are in their final descent. This means the window of opportunity is small and the failure rate high.
But the government insisted that it was enough, with President Park Geun-hye even saying in an Armed Forces Day speech earlier this month that North Korea's nuclear arsenal would be rendered "useless" due to the country's missile defense.
But on Tuesday government officials said there are "fundamental limitations" in dealing with North Korean missiles using only the domestic shield.
Flip-flopping like this within the space of two weeks does little for the government’s credibility. There are now suspicions that Seoul has in fact agreed to join the U.S.-led missile defense program by the back door in exchange for Washington again delaying the handover of full troop control to Seoul. That is not the way to handle vital matters of national security.
If Seoul were to pursue a multi-level missile defense, it would mean that it would have to join the U.S.-led missile defense program, because it would have to rely on the U.S. global missile surveillance system. China does not want the powerful U.S.-made X-band radars to be deployed on the Korean Peninsula, since they can monitor Chinese missiles along its eastern coast and Beijing suspects that it is the main target of the U.S. initiative.
If a missile shield is really essential to South Korean's defense, then it must embrace it no matter what. The North Korean nuclear threat has made it necessary to consider the option, and Seoul must explain that to Beijing. But first the government must explain to the public what on earth is going on.