The final results following the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Kim Jong-un’s statements about the areas of focus for his country’s military posture, caused quite a commotion. Hypersonic missiles and launching new satellites! Unmanned aerial vehicles, including combat drones! Nuclear-powered submarines with submarine-launched ballistic missiles! According to experts driven by various agendas, this all highlights the “criminal essence of the totalitarian regime”.
But everything comes to light in comparison, and it was no coincidence that Kim Jong-un justified his military posture by using the example of what is occurring in the South. Although Moon Jae-in’s regime positions itself as leftist, in terms of how it is developing its military programs, especially in the area of offensive weapons, it has significantly leapt ahead of the conservatives. Therefore, continuing the topic started in previous articles, the author would like to talk about how a country that is NOT North Korea is weaponizing.
In 2020, South Korea ranked sixth in the Global Firepower ranking for world countries’ military power, moving up one place from last year. The United States, Russia, China, India, and Japan rank above it. The DPRK, on the other hand, took 25th place, moving down seven spots compared to last year.
South Korea’s arms development roadmap for the period from 2021-2025 provides for budgetary expenditures in the amount of 300,700,000,000,000 won (253 billion USD). The plan envisages the country developing its own missile defense system, similar in terms of its characteristics to the Israeli Iron Dome system. In 2021, construction work on a light aircraft carrier will begin, and by 2025 production will start for a fifth-generation KF-X fighter jet – after the development work is done on that South Korea will become the 13th country in the world that manufactures its own fighter aircraft. Development work is planned for long-range guided air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles especially for the KF-X. The plan also provides for South Korea to create its own launch vehicle to deliver satellites into orbit, so that by 2025 several ultra small reconnaissance satellites can monitor the situation on the Korean Peninsula round-the-clock. The country also intends to create its own unmanned aerial reconnaissance aircraft. For the naval forces, over the next five years construction work will begin on submarines that have a displacement tonnage ranging between 3,600-4,000 tons. For 2021, the South Korean Ministry of Defense has asked for a defense budget of 52,920,000,000,000 won (44.79 billion USD), which represents an increase from 50,200,000,000,000 won in 2020. This means that the country’s defense budget has exceeded the 50-trillion won mark for the second year in a row.
Out of that total amount, the ministry has allocated 17.1 trillion won for arms purchases and other projects to strengthen the country’s defense capabilities, which is up 2.4% from 2020. Major projects include the abovementioned KF-X project, which will require 906.9 billion won next year; development work on a next-generation 4,000-ton submarine, which has a budget of 525.9 billion won; and manufacturing new K-2 battle tanks, which entails a budget of 309.4 billion won.
According to a military spending report put out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea was ranked in 10th place, with defense spending of 43.9 billion USD in 2019.
Missiles – and not just those for outer space
On July 24, 2020, Moon Jae-in visited the headquarters of the Korean Agency for Defense Development, where he became familiar with samples of new strategic weapons and a new ballistic missile, which in terms of its load-bearing capacity may become one of the best in the world. This most likely means the Hyunmoo-4 missile, which has a range of up to 800 kilometers, and can carry a warhead that weighs up to two tons. The head of state called the agency a base to help strengthen country’s armed forces, stating that largely thanks to the work it performs South Korea ranks sixth in the world in terms of its military power.
On July 28, South Korea and the United States agreed to lift the restrictions imposed on Seoul on developing and using solid-propellant missiles: from now on, South Korean companies, research institutes, and even individuals will be able to develop and produce missiles that use both solid and hybrid propellants. It is worth reiterating that solid-propellant missiles can be put into operation more quickly, and are harder to detect before takeoff.
President Moon Jae-in welcomed revisiting the agreement governing the use of missiles, and called for continued efforts to achieve “full missile sovereignty”. He stated that repealing the restrictions on using solid propellants for missiles would give the South Korean space industry a huge chance to develop.
Since there are many missiles, and they are all different, they will be discussed further on by type.
Missiles for use in space and military satellites
On July 20, 2020, the first Anasis-II military communications satellite in South Korea was launched on the second attempt from a launch site in the US state of Florida using a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket; this will replace the Anasis-I satellite, which is used for both civilian and military purposes. Ten days after the launch, the Anasis-II successfully reached its final position in geostationary orbit, and South Korea became the tenth country in the world with a communications satellite designed solely for military purposes.
On August 5, delivering a ceremonial speech marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Agency for Defense Development, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said that South Korea would soon receive its own military satellite. According to him, the agreement between South Korea and the United States to lift restrictions on Seoul developing and using solid-propellant missiles opens up new opportunities for creating reconnaissance satellites and doing aerospace research. The minister also highlighted the importance of creating the Hyunmoo-4 ballistic missile, with a flight range that is “sufficient to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula”. Against the backdrop of the threat posed by the North, South Korea is stepping up its efforts to develop technologies for high-precision weapon systems, hypersonic missiles, a domestically-produced satellite navigation system, and more “to further develop the country’s missile capabilities”. Jeong urged the Agency for Defense Development to stay at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution with its effort to create new weapons systems that will change the way war is waged, including stealth drones, laser weapon systems, etc.
In addition, South Korea is working on a plan to develop ultra small satellites to help better monitor North Korea. The research is at the front-end engineering design stage, and it is anticipated that it will be completed in 2023. It is also expected that small-sized low-Earth-orbit spy satellites flying at altitudes from 500-2000 kilometers will allow South Korea to track North Korea’s military activities virtually in real-time mode. By using 32 of these satellites at once, the military will be able to monitor the North every 30 minutes, day or night, regardless of the weather.
On January 22, 2021, the Ministry of Science and ICT reported that on March 20, 2021, a 500-kilogram reconnaissance satellite is slated to be launched using a Russian Soyuz-2.1a rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The satellite, equipped with an image sensor system developed by South Korean researchers, will be in low Earth orbit 497.8 km above the Earth’s surface. It is anticipated that it will start to transmit high-resolution video images of the Earth starting in June. Another, similar satellite is set to be launched in the beginning of 2022.
What is more interesting is the saga involving the launch of the next-generation KSLV-2 space rocket, which is scheduled for 2021. This rocket is supposed to bring a satellite with a mass of 1.5 tons up to low Earth orbit.
However, on December 29, 2020, the South Korean Ministry of Science and ICT announced that the launch using the first South Korean launch vehicle would be postponed for eight months. The launch of a three-stage rocket with a mock payload has been postponed from February to October 2021, the Ministry of Science and ICT stated on Tuesday. The second launch involving this rocket and a real satellite was postponed from October 2021 to May 2022. The ministry pointed to changes in the assembly process for the first stage, and delays in acquiring the necessary parts, as the reasons for postponing the launches.
ICMSs and SLBMs
Besides the abovementioned Hyunmoo-4, at the end of 2020 the military reported that land-based testing had been completed on SLBMs designed to be installed on submarines with displacement tonnages starting at 3,000 tons. The SLBM was developed taking the Hyunmoo-2B as its foundation, a ballistic missile that has a flight range of 500 kilometers. During 2021, tests are slated to be held from submerged positions, but exactly when that will be, and on what kind of platform, has not been decided yet: it could either be an underwater test barge or a submarine.
On November 25, 2020, South Korea decided to begin mass production of a new type of ground-based tactical missile, with a flight range of about 120 kilometers, designed to destroy the DPRK’s underground artillery bases. The corresponding plan was approved during a meeting devoted to defense industry development that was held in Seoul and chaired by Suh Wook, the South Korean Defense Minister. The new weapon was successfully developed using domestically-produced technology as part of a 450-billion won (406 million USD) project. By 2025, more than 200 units of the new rocket will have been manufactured, with the first samples expected to appear around 2022.
Anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ballistic missiles
On April 28, 2020, South Korea’s first locally developed “Cheongun” anti-aircraft guided missile system was delivered to the military. Dubbed the “Korean Patriot”, the medium-range surface-to-air missile is capable of striking enemy aircraft at altitudes up to 40 kilometers.
April also witnessed the news that at its air base in Cheongju, in North Chungcheong Province, the military urgently deployed a battery of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles to protect the base from new North Korean ballistic missiles and super-large multiple rocket launchers.
This is due to the fact that this base is where F-35 stealth fighters are located, and therefore may be a principal target for the DPRK. Military personnel are complaining that the Patriot missile batteries have been deployed to less than half of South Korea’s 10 air bases, while the rest are deployed to protect the Seoul metropolitan area, but about 130 PAC-3s are not enough for simultaneous barrage fire against the North’s new ballistic missiles.
On December 12, 2020, the South Korean Air Force received an additional lot of PAC-3s to increase the country’s air defense capabilities. “To better deal with the recent rise in missile threats, in November we completed upgrade work and delivery in close cooperation with the US government and the companies”.
In addition, as mentioned above, over the next five years South Korea will begin to develop its own “Iron Dome” to protect the infrastructure of the capital region “from long-range artillery threats from North Korea”, including large-caliber MLRSs.
On April 6, 2020 US Armed Forces in Korea declined to confirm a report by The Chosun Ilbo that they plan to deploy advanced Gray Eagle Extended Range attack drones to South Korea, similar to those used in the January 2020 assassination of a senior Iranian general.
On April 19, US Ambassador Harry Harris tweeted that a Global Hawk high-altitude drone had been delivered to South Korea. The ambassador did not give details on how many pieces of equipment were delivered, but it is known that Seoul acquired four of these drones from the United States, and one of them had already been delivered by December 2020. However, the news in November mentioned that at present South Korea has four of these kinds of UAVs.
In November 2020, it came to light that South Korea received equipment from the United States to decode images taken by the Global Hawk (RQ-4). According to the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), this means “image processing and decoding systems” that can read and decode visual information collected by the UAV. Previously, delivery of this equipment had been postponed due to protracted negotiations between the US authorities and the development organization, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
Evidently, after that, on November 3, South Korea launched a new Air Force unit responsible for operating the country’s key reconnaissance assets, such as the Global Hawk, RF-16, RC-800 Geumgang reconnaissance aircraft, etc.
On December 2, South Korean media outlets reported that in the next three to six months the military would begin testing strike drones, and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration signed contracts with companies for the acquisition of three types of cutting-edge strike drones.
These are suicide drones for sabotaging military facilities, UAVs capable of firing small-caliber cannons at ground targets, and small drones that perform integrated operations: observation and firing.
It is worth noting that a submarine is useful for deterrence because it is a key component of second-strike capability, or the ability to survive an initial enemy attack and retaliate.
On October 6, 2020, the South Korean presidential administration declined to comment on a report from The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper that Seoul had asked Washington to purchase nuclear fuel to operate a nuclear-powered submarine. The newspaper reported that Washington officials rejected the request, citing nonproliferation policies, but a Blue House spokesperson asked the media to exercise caution in covering this line, calling it a diplomacy and security issue linked to national interests. However, on October 18, the North Korean propaganda publication Meari called the alleged talks with Washington “an extremely dangerous act that is destroying peace on the Korean Peninsula, escalating tensions, and triggering an arms race”.
South Korea currently operates nine 1,200 ton class submarines and nine 1,800 ton class submarines, and is increasing its production of 3,450 ton KSS-III (Chan Bogo III) submarines, which are equipped with six SLBMs. The first was set afloat in 2018, and the second one on November 10, 2020. By 2029, the South Korean Navy hopes to put three lots into service that each have nine submarines like this, and the overall cost is estimated to be 8.7 billion USD.
Design engineering work for a large (the standard surface displacement tonnage for a vessel in the first series is 3,358 tons, and the underwater displacement tonnage is 3,708 tons) non-nuclear submarine has been going on since 2004. Initially, the option of having the vessel be nuclear-powered was considered, but ultimately is was decided that it would have an air-independent propulsion unit similar to that on the German model, with fuel cells used on the submarines under the German project 214 (KSS-II) currently being built for the South Korean fleet.
The length of the KSS-III submarine is 83.5 meters, its width is 9.6 meters, and the draught on the surface is 7.7 meters. The maximum velocity when submerged will be 20 knots, and the cruising radius at cruising speed will reach 10,000 miles. It has a crew of 50. The weapon system, besides having eight 533-millimeter forward torpedo tubes, will also include six vertical launchers for Cheongun cruise missiles with a firing range up to 1,500 km (the number of vertical launchers for vessels in the second series could be increased up to ten).
From the second series, it is presumed that the boats will receive advanced, domestically-developed lithium-ion batteries. The new battery is expected to double the duration that the boat can remain underwater compared to the lead acid battery currently in use.
The country is considering building next-generation 4,000-ton submarines, with some suggesting the military might fit them out with nuclear-powered engines. Another project is unmanned submarines, with the help of which the military will be able to collect information near the maritime border running between the Koreas without sending sailors to a high-risk zone.
And these are only those types of weapons that the author is reviewing in comparison with those mentioned by the leader of the DPRK, and after this the question of who is threatening whom – and who are defending themselves against whom – is ALREADY becoming a matter of controversy.
Although the story of how South Korea is arming itself, and whom it plans to attack, would be incomplete without describing the construction of an aircraft carrier or stealth fighters that have the telling name of “knight of freedom”. However, limited space for this article will force the author to talk about these, and other projects, “in the next episodes”.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.