South Korea’s defence procurement agency announced that it had approved plans to develop an artillery interception system, similar to Israel’s Iron Dome. This new defence system will be designed and built specifically to thwart attacks by rockets and long-range missiles launched by North Korea.
The South Korean government had announced in June that it would be spending approximately $2.5 billion on research and development of this new system, with a target to deploy it by 2035. North Korea deploys around 1,000 artillery pieces along the Military Demarcation Line that divides the Korean Peninsula.
A Yonhap news report quoted South Korean military officials saying this number includes multiple 240-millimeter rocket launchers, most of which are directly aimed at the South Korean capital Seoul and its larger metropolitan areas, that is home to approximately half the country’s population, according to government estimates.
Following the armistice that brought a halt to the Korean War in 1953, both countries have built up massive military presence on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line, along the 38th parallel.
“The Iron Dome responds to rockets fired by militant groups, such as Hamas and irregular forces sporadically. 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,” Col. Suh Yong-won, spokesperson of the Defense Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), had said at a military briefing, according to Yonhap news agency.
What has prompted this?
South Korea’s decision to develop this new defence system is the result of a long defence acquisition procedure, said Kim Youngjun, professor at the Korea National Defense University. “Of course, North Korea has always been one of consideration for South Korea’s military’s defence development, but it is not the only cause for it. South Korea is surrounded by powerful neighboring countries like China, Russia, Japan and others.”
At the same time, South Korea’s military posture has largely been North Korea-centric, particularly over the last decade, Dr Jagannath Panda, coordinator of the East Asia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi, told indianexpress.com. “The South Koreans have been continuously trying to upgrade their military capabilities. Israel’s Iron Dome system was very much in South Korea’s radar for a very long time.”
A little over a decade ago, both countries began expanding cooperation in the field of military and defence, with Seoul showing interest in purchasing military hardware including drones, missiles and radar from Israel. At that time, researchers had believed that potential purchases would possibly include missile defense systems.
South Korea’s most recent plans need to be analysed in context of the country’s military modernisation process that has occurred over the past few decades, Panda said. “Their export policy internationally, in terms of selling arms and ammunition to the Latin American countries and the Middle East, has been on a grand scale.
“But, at the same time, they have been very receptive to adapting to military systems of the world, copying the US, Israel and other countries. Israel has been a reference point for South Korea for some time now and the recent Iron Dome system is part of the process,” Panda said.
In 2012, some researchers had speculated that South Korea was planning to make Israel one of its main arms suppliers, in addition to the United States; a decision that was rooted in its desire to procure advanced weapons systems and technology to deter threats from North Korea.
In 2009, the South Korean military purchased the Israeli Green Pine Block-B, an Israeli ground-based missile-defense radar that cost approximately $215 million. This was followed by the signing of two more deals between the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and South Korea, where Seoul purchased radar systems manufactured by Elta, a subsidiary of the Israel Aerospace Industries.
South Korea first expressed interest following a high-level visit to Israel by the vice-commissioner of the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) Kwon Oh-bong, in June 2011. He toured Israel’s defense industry and also met senior defense ministry officials.
Reports suggested that during this visit, Kwon had also met with representatives of the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and expressed interest in the Iron Dome rocket interception system. A year prior to this visit, South Korean military authorities had considered using the Iron Dome in the country following the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, the Hankyoreh newspaper reported.
None of this should come as a surprise to observers of the Korean Peninsula, Panda said. South Korea’s defence ministry is continuously trying to modernise the country’s defence industry. We know South Korean companies are very competitive and believe in innovative arms and ammunition and trying to copy something on the Israel model has been a practice by the South Korean defence companies for a long time. So what we are seeing is part concern due to North Korea, part military modernisation strategy, and part of South Korea’s innovation strategy that it has employed for the last one decade or so,” Panda explained.
South Korea’s defence ministry said the country’s version of the Iron Dome would be very different from Israel’s and would also cost a lot more. There are operational differences between the two systems as well, with the most significant being that South Korea’s system will be designed to intercept long-range artillery pieces.
But more importantly, South Korea and Israel face different security threats that require different responses, experts agree. There is also a significant difference between the belligerents in both cases. While Israel contends with Hamas, which is primarily a militant group, South Korea had to contend with North Korea, a nation with its own extensive military capabilities.
There are also other factors at play here, explained Kim. “Israel’s system is fit for its geography, the desert and threats like rocket shooting by non-state actors. But, South Korea has different geography, with mountain terrain with threats from traditional state actors. Thus, South Korea will develop its own type of weapon system, fit for its geography and environment.”
In South Korea, these plans to acquire an indigenous version of the Iron Dome have generated some domestic criticism as well. Some politicians and activists have criticised the government for spending more on developing military capabilities to deter North Korea, while on the other hand, the Moon Jae-in government has been more friendly than its predecessors with Pyongyang.
“Some argue that the Moon Jae-in administration has a contradictory policy between the Korean Peninsula Peace process and defense development. But, it is not contradictory,” explained Kim. “For instance, the US had good diplomatic ties with the Soviets (the arms control treaty), but prepared for defense measures during the Cold War. Today, the US has trade relations with China, but the US Department of Defense considers the PLA as the main threat.” Kim believes South Korea is merely looking out for its own interests in the Korean Peninsula and the region at large.
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In northeast Asia’s complex geopolitical dynamics, South Korea’s decisions to develop this new defence system is bound to cause consternation, experts agree. “Japan might keep a cautious eye and might not be happy with South Korea possessing such a model like Israel. But they aren’t really opposed to it either because they know that these capabilities are being developed keeping North Korea in mind,” said Panda.
“South Korea will be developing these new missiles with the knowledge of the Americans, an alliance partner of both Japan and South Korea. But China will see it as a negative development because as we know, when THAAD was deployed, both China and Russia reacted very strongly.” According to Panda, Russia has never been in favour of advanced militarisation in the Korean Peninsula because it believes that such a development may only check Russian influence and military might in northeast Asia. “The security architecture in northeast Asia would not really be stable. And this is the main cause of concern for Beijing and Moscow right now. Both are monitoring the situation for now, but are bound to react.”