Umbrella with holes: New NK missiles prove Seoul’s defense system to be faulty at best

Posted on : 2024-04-10 09:36 KST Modified on : 2024-04-10 09:36 KST
Seoul can estimate where Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles will strike – give or take 50 to 400 kilometers
North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on April 3, 2024, that leader Kim Jong-un had given on-site guidance for the test launch of the Hwasongpho-16B, an intermediate-range solid-fuel ballistic missile tipped with a hypersonic gliding warhead, on April 2. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on April 3, 2024, that leader Kim Jong-un had given on-site guidance for the test launch of the Hwasongpho-16B, an intermediate-range solid-fuel ballistic missile tipped with a hypersonic gliding warhead, on April 2. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Is South Korea a safe place to live now? Is it the kind of place where you can sleep easy when your head hits the pillow?

In the two years since Yoon Suk-yeol took office as president, security in South Korea has faded like a mirage. In its place, we find only stirring yet empty rhetoric. Amid all that hollow talk, North Korea’s nuclear armament has been progressing by the day.

The hypersonic missile that the North test-launched on April 2 ruthlessly showed how exposed South Korea’s national defense is. It laid bare the state of our missile network as an umbrella riddled with holes.
Expected in Seoul, hitting Osan instead

The Ministry of National Defense may have detected the missile’s launch, but it appears not to have precisely ascertained the warhead’s landing point.

On the day of the launch, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated the missile’s range at around 600 km, explaining that it had traveled past Alsom Island in North Hamgyong Province before landing in the East Sea.

But when the North’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) announced the test-fire the following day, it said the missile had “reached its first peak at the height of 101.1 kilometers and the second 72.3 kilometers while making 1,000-km-long flight as scheduled to accurately hit the waters of the East Sea of Korea.”

The North appeared confident enough to share not only the distance but also the altitude. That reported distance was 400 km farther than what the Joint Chiefs had announced.

It is impossible to confirm whether the North’s announcement was entirely truthful, but photographs published by the KCNA showed the missile’s altitude and course. Launched from the vicinity of Pyongyang, it flew northeast, traveling along the coast of Russia’s Far East before turning left and falling into the sea, having covered a distance of around 1,000 km.

This is consistent with the announcement stating that the test had verified the “cross-range maneuvering capability of the hypersonic glide vehicle.” It is also consistent with a “glide skip” flight pattern, in which a missile reaches a peak and then glides before recommencing its flight.

Does this mean that South Korea’s military authorities failed to detect the skip and turn in the missile’s flight? We can only question whether the landing site was speculation based on the mistaken conclusion that this was a simple ballistic missile.

Four hundred kilometers is a big distance. We can imagine a similar situation unfolding in a wartime situation: North Korea launches a missile, and the South Korean military concludes that the warhead will fall in Busan. It mobilizes its missile defense system on that basis, and at the moment it announces its interception, the nuclear warhead detonates in Osaka instead.

That sort of error wouldn’t just be a failure at intercepting a North Korean missile — it would have to be seen as a breakdown of the entire missile defense system.

Obviously, we cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea’s announcement was an exaggeration. Even if that’s true, we also can’t ignore the discrepancy with what the Japan Self-Defense Forces announced. Japan declared that the missile had a range of “650 km or more.”

Leaving aside the question of whether South Korea or Japan got it right, the two of them disagreed by more than 50 km with their assessments of the range. Going back to a wartime scenario, that would be like the South Korean military mobilizing its missile defense system for a North Korean missile landing in Seoul, only for it to actually fall on Osan Air Base instead.

Assuming that North Korea launches a missile at the South, we might expect the military to come up with a more accurate assessment. But a missile defense system is only meaningful when it has the kind of precision that doesn’t allow for even a few meters’ discrepancy. If a warhead is incoming, a ballpark estimate won’t stop it from causing damage.

Ukraine has occasionally intercepted Russian missiles, but there have also been issues with damage from explosions caused when these intercepted warheads have fallen in the wrong places. The only reason the damage hasn’t been worse is that these are not nuclear warheads.

In the case of a nuclear warhead, the situation is very different.

Even if you succeed in intercepting the missiles carrying nuclear warheads, if you fail to completely destroy the warheads themselves, it doesn’t matter where they fall. Yongsan, the Blue House — Seoul will be leveled, and the human casualties will be massive. Therefore, even the slightest of errors is not permissible when it comes to missiles designed to intercept nuclear missiles. 

But they’re talking about error margins of at least 50 km and up to 400 km? Simply absurd. A simple upgrade in the reliability of the defense system is not enough. The design of the whole system needs to be re-evaluated.

Essentially defenseless against latest advances in nuclear missiles

Any functioning government would have completely overturned such a system by now. Now is not the time for Joint Chiefs of Staff to go on a defensive PR campaign by insisting that North Korea’s claims about the range of its missiles are “exaggerated.” It’s time for the presidential office to directly intervene by leading an audit. 

Auditors need to look at objective data to determine the missiles’ precise point of impact. They need to determine the accuracy of North Korea’s claims, the Joint Chiefs’ claims, and Japan’s announcement. They also need to thoroughly evaluate the data disparities between South Korea and Japan and locate their source. Most of all, they need to develop countermeasures. Even if they do all that, that’s the bare minimum for any government that actually cares about its duty to ensure national security and protect the safety of its citizens.

Yet one would struggle to find this sense of duty within the Yoon administration. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lim Soo-suk came out to “strongly condemn North Korea’s behavior, which are clear provocations that gravely threaten the peace and stability of both the Korean Peninsula and the international community” — but this all comes off as idle talk. 

The trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan is also hollow. Lee Joon-il, Seoul’s deputy nuclear envoy, and his US and Japanese counterparts in Jung Pak and Yukiya Hamamoto, respectively, have all denounced North Korea’s ballistic missile launches as violations of UN Security Council resolutions, repeating Lim’s language by “strongly condemning the clear provocations that gravely threaten the peace and stability of both the Korean Peninsula and the international community.” But do strong condemnations stop missile launches?

Economic sanctions have also lost their effectiveness. Even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when North Korea sealed its borders, Pyongyang still devoted all its resources to its nuclear weapons program, successfully developing and installing a variety of missiles and weapons systems. Despite several test launches from North Korea, it’s been years since the UN Security Council last agreed on an updated round of sanctions. The UN’s expert panel on the sanctions on Pyongyang will soon be disbanded. The sanctions were put in place to prevent North Korea from furthering its nuclear weapons program, but they failed in that purpose. They were reduced to paper tigers a long time ago.

Aligned with the timing of the Pentagon’s B-52 strategic bombers arriving in South Korea, South Korea, the US and Japan conducted their first joint training exercise off the coast of southeast Jeju island, in a region where the air defense identification zones (ADIZ) of Japan and Korea overlap. The exercise was likely planned ahead of time, yet even if the exercise was designed as a countermeasure against North Korea’s missile launches, it does not fill the gaps in South Korea’s defense system. If the North’s ballistic missiles detonate on South Korean soil, will the strategic bombers that sweep in resurrect the dead? Will they revive the decimated landscape?

The Yoon administration’s “security through strength” is turning into “security filled with holes.” North Korea’s missiles will turn our defensive network into an umbrella filled with holes. And what is the Yoon administration doing about it? Isn’t it time to look into a completely new solution?

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

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