South Korea’s Defense ministry said in mid July it had asked for a larger budget for next year to improve troops’ readiness for combat and fortify frontline islands against North Korea.
The ministry said in a statement it is seeking a budget of $29.1 billion for 2012, a 6.6 percent increase from this year.
“Our request was focused largely on building a military that is ready for battle and can win immediately,” it said.
“We will also try to improve the welfare of our troops and boost their morale, and to keep pushing for defense reform.”
About $5 billion has been allocated to bolster defenses on islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border after two deadly incidents last year that were blamed on the North.
The South accused the North of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 and killing 46 sailors. It denied the charge but went on to shell a border island last November, killing four South Koreans including two civilians.
The US, which stations 28,500 troops in the country, has exercised wartime command over South Korean forces since the 1950-53 conflict. The South regained peacetime control over its own military in 1994.
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. The project will cost about $3 billion.
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, and it has incurred strong protest from Russia and 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, 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 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, Korean military authorities will set up an Israeli-made ballistic missile early warning system, and a 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.
But the question is, if so to say North Korean missile movements are of real danger.
North Korea last year tested a rocket to carry long-range missiles in an apparent attempt to showcase its weapons capability to the United States.
The communist state conducted the rocket engine test at the new missile base on the west coast in October, a South Korean news agency said, citing a senior Seoul official.
“We believed that the test, carried out at an hour when the US military satellite could detect it, was aimed at showcasing its missile threats,” the agency quoted the official as saying.
Satellite images taken last January showed that North Korea had completed a launch tower at this missile base, which was bigger and more advanced than the older base on the east coast.
The North launched long-range missiles in 1998, 2006 and 2009, sending its Taepodong-2 missile to land some 2,000 miles in the Pacific in April 2009.
Analysts said the new base whose construction was believed to be almost complete, was seen as a key in the North’s quest for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could possibly strike the United States.
The North has started to build new railways to transport materials needed to complete the new base, said the official quoted by Yonhap news agency, adding Seoul saw no immediate signs that the North was about to launch long-range missiles at the site.
Seoul intelligence believe that the North’s Taepodong-2 missile, whose maximum range is estimated at 6,700 kilometers, could reach the US west coast within about 20 minutes if successfully launched at the new base, Yonhap said.
So, it sounds quite natural Seoul and Washington have started talks to revise a bilateral accord that limits South Korea’s ballistic missile range to 300 km.
“The two sides have recently started talks on the revision of the missile accord because there is now some consensus between them,” a Seoul government source said. “The talks are still in their initial stage, so it remains to be seen how much we can increase the range and payload weight.”
The accord, signed in 1979, was revised once before in 2001. It limits the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles to 300 km and their payload weight to 500 kg, preventing Seoul from matching the range of missiles to those North Korea has been developing.
Seoul proposed the revision talks to Washington after the North tested a long-range ballistic missile in April 2009. But U.S. military leaders including U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Walter Sharp are against a revision.
South Korean military and some experts stress the need to increase the range to more than 1,000 km, which would bring all of North Korea within reach from the south coast, and the payload weight to more than 1 ton.
The North has deployed ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 3,000 to 4,000 km warfare ready, but South Korean ballistic missiles, such as Hyunmu and ATACMS, have the range of a mere 165 to 300 km.
Meanwhile, South Korea will not seek the return of U.S. tactical nuclear missiles over fears that the move could scupper international efforts to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear program.
“Redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea would cross the line of the denuclearization policy on the Korean Peninsula,” a South Korean Defense ministry official told the Yonhap news agency last Fall.