Why is South Korea developing an Israeli-style Iron Dome?
North Korea has an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces, including multiple rocket launchers along its frontier, aimed at the South Korean capital, Seoul.
Seoul, South Korea – South Korea is developing a new artillery and short-range rocket defence system modelled after Israel’s Iron Dome, in a further upgrade to its military hardware on a peninsula that technically remains at war.
The South Korean government said last month that it plans to spend about $2.5bn on research and development and deploy the new system by 2035.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, and since then North and South have built up troops and armaments along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries. North Korea has also in recent years developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, although the envisioned South Korean defence system will not be able to defend against those weapons, it will be able to target artillery and short-range rockets.
North Korea has an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces, including rocket launchers, dug in just north of the DMZ, less than 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the greater Seoul area and its 25 million residents, half of South Korea’s population.
South Korea’s new system will aim to defend the South Korean capital, its core facilities, as well as key military and security infrastructure from a potential North Korean bombardment, using interceptor missiles.
But South Korea’s artillery interceptor system will need to be significantly more capable than the Israeli system.
“The Iron Dome responds to rockets fired by militant groups, such as Hamas and irregular forces sporadically,” said Colonel Suh Yong-won, spokesperson for the Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) in June. “Some parts of the system will bear similarities, but what we are going to build is designed to intercept long-range artillery pieces by North Korea, which requires a higher level of technologies given the current security situation.”
That is why, he said, the South Korean system is expected to cost a lot more than the Israeli system.
Military experts also noted that Israel needed to shoot down far fewer projectiles than South Korea would probably have to. Hamas fired about 4,300 rockets across 10 days in the most recent Gaza conflict. But using more advanced targeting, large cannon and rocket launchers, North Korea can initially fire an estimated 16,000 rounds an hour, according to a recent report by the Hankyoreh newspaper.
“It’s an incredibly challenging undertaking,” said Ankit Panda, Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Still, experts seem confident South Korea will be able to develop an effective missile defence against North Korea’s artillery and rocket fire. The question is the price. For many states, national security and specifically military budgets challenge conventional cost-benefit analysis.
“There is no choice for South Korea, it can’t be helped,” said Jo Dong Joon, director of the Center for North Korea Studies at Seoul National University. “South Korea worries that North Korea could fire its long-range artillery without much fear of retaliation.”
The impetus for developing the system came in 2010, when North Korea shelled the border island of Yeonpyeong and killed four people.
According to the Hankyoreh newspaper, following the Yeonpyeong incident, South Korean authorities considered introducing an Iron Dome system, but ultimately deemed it inappropriate. Their focus at the time was to destroy the source of the incoming fire.
For that, South Korea last year deployed new Korea Tactical Surface to Surface Missiles, KTSSMs, so-called “artillery killers” with a range of 100km (62 miles) and designed specifically to destroy the North’s artillery, said Jo, who also specialises in nuclear strategy. But South Korea’s KTSSMs will take time to target and destroy the source of fire – the artillery pieces and rocket launchers – which could give Pyongyang enough time to strike and destroy key facilities in Seoul.
South Korea’s new “Iron Dome”-style system will defend against that threat, with the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile defence already deployed to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
Deter nuclear escalation
By defending against the North’s artillery and rockets along the DMZ, some experts believe limited provocations will be deterred, and be less likely to escalate into a larger conflict involving the North’s nuclear weapons.
“North Korea’s escalation ladder now reaches very high – to nuclear weapons,” explained Jo, adding that South Korea must be able to respond specifically to the artillery threat, or impose the greater risk of provoking escalation.
North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons creates a number of strategic challenges beyond the weapons themselves. The threat of their use emboldens Pyongyang, and places Seoul at a disadvantage despite its vastly superior conventional forces, and alliance with the United States.
“North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is the cause of the breakdown of the strategic balance … missile defence adjusts that imbalance a little bit,” explained Go Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
But anti-missile and anti-artillery defence is seen as a relatively expensive undertaking, involving years of research and development, for a debatable benefit. The spending on defensive systems can be compensated with the deployment of more offensive missiles to overcome the defensive system, and it would cost less.
“It will always be cheaper for any attacker, be it North Korea, be it Hamas, to acquire more offensive missiles, than it will be for defenders to continue procuring defensive interceptors,” said Carnegie’s Panda. “The resources South Korea’s going to be spending … has opportunity costs elsewhere, on what South Korea could spend on offensive weapons.”
At the same time, South Korea’s burgeoning military-industrial complex could greatly benefit from the project beyond the initial research, development and deployment for South Korea.
“A system like this could be attractive as a potential export,” said Panda.
Still, some vehemently have opposed the programme, arguing that it is South Korea’s increasing military spending – now approaching $50bn a year – that is driving an inter-Korean arms race.
“Long-range artillery is a threat, but South Korea’s military and weapons deployments are also a threat to North Korea,” said Park Jung-eun, secretary-general of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a prominent South Korean NGO.
South Korea has been upgrading its military hardware in a number of areas, including the development and deployment of advanced naval destroyers, its own artillery, rocket and missile systems, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, which are all generations ahead of North Kora’s weapons systems. It is this imbalance in conventional forces that drives Pyongyang to alternative strategies.
“This increase in arms ultimately prevents the North from making other choices … to focus on asymmetric weapons such as nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction,” said Park.
South Korea’s democratic leadership spends even more than conservatives, said Park, who has worked in peace activism for 15 years. Democrats want to avoid criticism of being soft and placate a military less enthusiastic about peace initiatives.
There is also a corporate motivation behind the approval of such an expensive project.
“This could be a way to feed the conglomerate defence companies, whether Samsung or Hanwha, for unrealistic military defence,” said Park.
One of the criticisms of Iron Dome is that it prevents the Israeli government from pursuing a resolution of the longstanding roots of the problem diplomatically.
Park makes the same evaluation for South Korea.
“Instead of the Iron Dome, I think that we need to focus more on dialogue.”