[Column] The arms race lining the military-industrial complex’s pockets

Posted on : 2021-10-16 10:47 KST Modified on : 2021-10-16 10:47 KST
Both South and North Korea have recently displayed newly developed military technologies — but who benefits from such an arms race?
Cheong Wook-Sik
Cheong Wook-Sik
By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

When I heard news that North Korea had test-launched a hypersonic missile it called the Hwasong-8 on Sept. 28, I found myself thinking about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province.

With the THAAD deployment looming in 2017, North Korea announced its plans to develop missiles capable of neutralizing the defense system. Since then, it has come out with the so-called North Korean Iskander, a missile capable of evasive maneuvers that make it difficult to intercept; cruise missiles that fly at low altitudes, making them difficult to detect or track; and now a hypersonic missile.

This was just the first test of the new missile, and it may be some time before the it is actually integrated into their arms lineup. What’s clear, however, is that North Korea is assembling the missiles it needs to neutralize THAAD and other forms of missile defense.

How does the US intend to respond? Perhaps it will come out with some new device, insisting that the US military and Lockheed Martin — the world’s largest defense corporation and the manufacturer of THAAD — saw this coming all along and prepared new answers ahead of time.

Lockheed Martin is now doing research and development work on THAAD-ER, an extended range version of THAAD. Its interceptors are reportedly twice as fast as the existing ones, with roughly triple the range.

There are two reasons behind its development. One is to allow for interception of hypersonic missiles, and the other is for use in intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles.

THAAD-ER can be installed on existing launchers. The Pentagon is predicting that combat deployment could come as early as the mid-2020s.

The US is currently operating two THAAD bases in the Indo-Pacific region, one in Seongju and the other in Guam. It’s also building up military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific in order to contain, suppress, and block off China.

This means that once the new THAAD-ER is rolled out, it is very likely to be deployed with the THAAD battery in Seongju. That’s even more apparent when we consider that South Korea is the US ally in closest proximity to the countries the US is targeting with its missile defense: North Korea, China and Russia.

The Korean Peninsula arms race isn’t just between North Korea and the US. The “phased disarmament” that South and North Korea agreed upon in 2018 has fallen completely by the wayside as the arms race between the two sides has been ramping up.

The Moon Jae-in administration has already ushered South Korea to the world’s sixth largest military capabilities, thanks to astronomical investments in defense spending. It recently announced an intermediate-term defense plan that includes 315 trillion won (US$262.5 billion) in spending over five years; it also showed off a set of four new missiles.

In addition to testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile, it also publicized the development of a long-range air-to-surface missile to be used with the KF-21 Boramae fighter aircraft; the Hyunmoo-4 surface-to-surface ballistic missile, with a warhead capacity of two tons; and a supersonic cruise missile.

Not to be outdone, North Korea has been showing off its own missiles, declaring its plans for beefing up its national nuclear armament capabilities.

South Korea’s economic power is over times that of North Korea; its defense spending alone is 1.5 times larger than North Korea’s gross domestic product. This has prompted hopeful predictions that the burden of an arms race will push Pyongyang to agree to dialogue.

But we also need to consider North Korea’s strategies of cost-efficiency, selection and focus.

It possesses its own nuclear fuel cycle and missile development capabilities. It has been shifting the focus away from conventional military capabilities and channeling it toward nuclear and missile capabilities.

This is what makes it so confident that it can sustain a balance of military power with the South Korea-US alliance while spending only around one-twentieth what the South does on its military.

It’s enough to leave you asking who this arms race is really benefiting.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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