South Korea’s armed forces have recently engaged in a series of demonstrative exercises. Had they occurred in the North, they would have prompted alarmist headlines, glib political rhetoric, and angry speeches at the UN Security Council.
As reported on September 7 by the Korean Agency for Defense Development, on September 1, 2021, there was a successful test underwater launch (using the so-called technology of the “cold start”) of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) of the Hyunmoo 4-4 (variation of the Hyunmoo-2B with a flight range of up to 500 km) from South Korea’s newest submarine, the Dosan Ahn Changho (KSS-III) with a displacement of 3,000 tons. As a result, the ROK has become the eighth country in the world to possess homegrown SLBMs, after the US, Russia, the UK, France, India, China, and North Korea.
Reading the news about the ROK’s missile program, it may seem that after restrictions on South Korean missile development were lifted during the Biden-Moon summit, Seoul has been seriously engaged in developing longer-range, high-power large missiles.
It should be reminded that in 1979, amid Park Chung-hee’s attempts to develop his own nuclear missile program, the ROK was forced to develop missiles under US control to obtain the appropriate technology, but the agreement limited the maximum capability of South Korean missiles to a range of 180 kilometers with a payload of 500 kilograms.
Seoul and Washington have since held a series of talks to loosen the restrictions. In January 2001, the two countries agreed to increase the maximum range to 300 kilometers and the warhead weight to 500 kilograms and excluded cruise missiles from the range limit if the warhead weighed less than 500 kilograms. In 2012, the range limit for non-cruise missiles was increased to 800 kilometers, and in 2017, the payload limit was removed.
In 2020, Washington allowed Seoul to develop solid-propellant space rockets, which are simpler in design and easier to transport, and the 2021 summit finally removed range restrictions.
As a result, South Korea developed the Hyunmoo IV ballistic missile in 2020, which can fly up to 800 kilometers with a payload of 2,000 kilograms. It is reported that medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers are being developed based on this missile.
South Korea has Hyunmoo-III B and Hyunmoo-III C cruise missiles, ranging 1,000 kilometers and 1,500 kilometers, respectively. Still, ballistic missiles are believed to be more strategically important because cruise missiles flying at low altitudes and speeds are easier to intercept.
On September 2, the ROK Ministry of Defense unveiled an ordnance alterations plan from 2022 to 2026. It is to develop new surface-to-surface and ship-to-ground missiles with increased range and power. The program is to spend 315.2 trillion won ($273 billion) over five years, an increase of 5.8% over the previous five years.
First of all, we need to take note of the short-range missile with a warhead weighing up to 3 tons, which is in the final stage of development. The ministry said the new missiles “with increased destructive power” will be capable of destroying enemies’ tunnels and buildings with accuracy precise enough to hit the size of an entrance of a building. According to some Russian experts, they are designed to destroy the underground tunnel infrastructure of DPRK (read between the lines: North Korea nuclear program facilities).
Mass production of an analogue of the Cheongung II interceptor missile, which is considered equivalent to the US Patriot missile is expected in the near future. According to the South Korea Agency for Defense Development, the medium-range anti-aircraft missile tests have been safely completed. The missile will soon go into mass production. Given South Korea’s defense capabilities, there is a chance that they will produce more of these missiles than the North. This is quite an important point because if we look at the situation on and around the peninsula, not from the perspective of “North Korea threatens the world”, but from the perspective of a regional arms race, the effect of a South Korean military launch is as large as if not larger. Especially given US insistence on including the ROK in an anti-China alliance.
In addition, a plan to purchase Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 interceptor missiles from the United States at the cost of 770 billion won has been approved.
There is an opinion that the US is trying to get out of an unpleasant situation in this way. They clearly would like to turn the ROK into a beachhead for US missiles, but this is causing a very harsh reaction from China. Washington apparently expects that the appearance of medium-range missiles from Seoul will provoke a less violent reaction from China than the deployment of American missiles on South Korean territory.
Another dimension of South Korea’s missile program is space. Again, one may recall how similar North Korean directions were branded as military developments, only disguised as peaceful space exploration.
South Korea has sought to develop a domestic space launch vehicle since 2010, and in 2013 the country launched its two-stage Naro rocket, but its first stage was built in Russia.
On March 25, the ROK Ministry of Science reported that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute successfully conducted the third and final test of four 75-ton liquid-propellant engines of the 200-ton rocket, named Nuri. ROK’s President Moon Jae-in expressed satisfaction with the test results and noted that such results “bring the coming of the South Korean space era closer.”
On October 21, a rocket is expected to be launched, which will try to lift a 1.5-ton mock payload into the air, and on May 19, 2022, there will be a launch of a dummy payload with a 200-kg satellite. Such satellite-to-mockup ratios are circumstantial evidence that this missile program has a military purpose since “1.5 tonnes of operational load” most likely means a warhead.
On June 18, 2021, South Korea said it would develop more than 100 miniature satellites over the next decade “to establish a national security monitoring system and test next-generation network communications.” By 2031, it is planned to launch 14 communications satellites in low earth orbit to create a satellite communications network to prepare for 6G technology and test autonomous ship control systems and maritime traffic services; 22 satellites to monitor radio wave activity in space; and 13 test satellites for removing space trash. The latter formulation may conceal the development of technologies for destroying enemy satellites.
Incidentally, North Korea was also about to launch observation satellites to track enemy action and provide communications for its own units.
On June 21, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook indicated that the country would strengthen space defense capabilities and establish a joint operations system to combat growing space threats. The minister noted that lifting range and payload restrictions on South Korean missiles has opened up new horizons for the domestic defense industry.
And on August 19, the ROK’s defense procurement agency announced that the ROK plans to invest 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion) over the next ten years to develop basic military satellite technology. The South Korean Agency for Defense Development (ADD) said on September 10 that they would begin developing an ultra-small satellite system next year at the cost of 11.2 billion won ($9.6 million) to detect security threats such as North Korean missile launchers. The satellite reconnaissance system includes several ultra-small satellites moving in low orbit, detecting unusual movements within its detection zone. The first ultra-small satellite is scheduled for launch in 2025. The Agency for Defense Development is also developing a military reconnaissance satellite equipped with high-sensitivity radar to launch it next year.
Also of note is Korea’s planning to build a domestic counterpart to Israel’s Iron Dome as a system designed to detect, identify and destroy incoming threats such as short-range missiles, artillery shells and unmanned aerial vehicles.
On June 28, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) presided over by the defense minister, approved the 2.89 trillion won ($2.56 billion) project, which is expected to begin in earnest next year and be completed around 2035.
By the way, when journalists asked why the cost of developing the Korean version was so much higher than that of the Israeli counterpart, which cost 230 billion won in terms of the ROK currency, a representative of the defense procurement program said that it would be a more expensive and high-tech project designed for North Korean rockets, not for primitive Hamas production projects.
In all, the arms procurement Agency has allocated 1.485 trillion won ($1.3 billion) for defense technology research and development (R&D) in 2022. It must be said that during Moon Jae-in’s rule, the military R&D budget grew at an average of 39% per year, and in 2019 South Korea’s defense budget stood at $43 billion and was ranked 10th in the world.
A few words should also be said about the submarine that was used to launch the SLBM. The commissioning ceremony for the mid-range diesel submarine named after South Korea’s prominent independence fighter Dosan Ahn Changho was held at Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering’s shipyard on Geojedo Island in the East Sea on August 13. It is the first Changbogo-III Batch-I class submarine to be built by 2023 using proprietary technology as part of a 3 trillion won ($2.7 billion) project launched in 2007.
The 83.5m long and 9.6m wide submarine is served by a crew of 50. It carries six ballistic missiles and can operate underwater for about three weeks without surfacing using the AIP system. Seventy-six percent of the components were locally produced, which helped the military reduce costs by reducing dependence on technology produced overseas. The submarine was launched in September 2018 and will be put on combat duty in August 2022 after undergoing sea trials and assessing its performance.
At the same time, the Korean Defense Procurement Agency announced on September 10 that it had signed a contract with Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering worth 985.7 billion won ($853 million) to build the next submarine of this type. The second unit of three Changbogo-III Batch-II class submarines will have 80% domestic production components, a displacement of 3,600 thousand tons and ten launchers for ballistic missiles instead of six. All three units are to be put on combat duty in 2029.
Moreover, according to Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, although the 3000-ton class submarine is diesel-powered, its successful development and a high proportion of locally produced parts have proven that South Korea has set the stage for building 4,000-ton or 5,000-ton nuclear-powered submarines in the near future.
However, the development of missile technology is only one aspect of South Korea’s military capabilities: the purchase of new helicopters, the construction of new frigates and destroyers and the project to build a light aircraft carrier (more details in a future article) are all things that North Korean propaganda interprets as the development of the material base for a future invasion.
To summarize, South Korea is doing what the North has only contemplated – mass production of submarines with 3,000-ton displacement for short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and it is doing it with a vengeance. Although such development of military capabilities has no specific limitations and the South (as well as the North) has every right to do so, such a step aggravates the situation and triggers an arms race no less than similar actions by the DPRK. And when the ROK has medium-range missiles with a range of 1,000 to 3,000 km, there is a good question as to whom these missiles will be aimed at, because, at that range, they could be successfully aimed at Tokyo and Beijing or Shanghai.
But unlike similar activity in the North, news of this kind does not make the front page.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.