photo composition of Kim Jong-Un with missile in the background

Photocomposition by Thursday Review staff.

S. Korea May Get Advanced Missile Defense System

| published February 13, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Concerns about North Korean military activities—especially the test last month of a nuclear device which Pyongyang described as a small hydrogen bomb, and the North’s recent launch of a large ballistic missile carrying a payload—South Korean and U.S. military officials are opening detailed discussions about the deployment of several new U.S.-made weapons, including an advanced missile defense system.

The weapons system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), would be deployed in South Korea as a deterrent to North Korea’s increasingly belligerent military activities and weapons tests. The THAAD system is designed to quickly interdict and shoot down incoming rockets or missiles using extremely advanced technologies.

Discussions between U.S. military officials and South Korean officials could begin as early as next week, according to some news reports. U.S. military planners would train some South Koreans on the use of the system, though it is likely that American soldiers would operate it in a an actual crisis. The THAAD system is strictly defensive in nature, but may ease the concerns and fears now being expressed in the South that the regime of Kim Jong-un in the isolated North could launch a preemptive strike or invasion, the salient of which could very well include North Korea rockets or missiles.

Tensions between the two countries have been running high since late 2014 and early last year, and have included minor border clashes which have resulted in soldiers being maimed or killed, and an escalating war of words over loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas. Both the nuclear test and the ballistic missile tests were violations of a variety of international agreements and U.N.-imposed sanctions against the highly isolated country.

This week, it retaliation for the weapons testing, South Korea cut off electrical power to a joint industrial and manufacturing zone at Kaesong. The industrial site, located just across the border inside North Korea, was developed during better times more than ten years ago, and was seen as one of several steps in those days toward a more peaceful balance between the two countries.

South Korea not only cut power to the site—under the terms of the original agreement Seoul had long been providing electricity and principal communications technologies to the area—but issued a recall to all employees from the South who work in the zone. Late Thursday night, the 280 employees who are citizens of the South had exited the facility, and within an hour power had been cut. The North, which has limited electrical power across much of the country, was not immediately able to restore activities at the site. Pyongyang issued a statement a few hours later declaring the power cut to be an act or war.

The Kaesong Industrial site employed mostly North Koreans, roughly 56,000 total, who were allowed to work for wages similar to those paid to workers in the South. The Kaesong site was one of the few places where citizens of the North were allowed any interaction with citizens in the South. The shutdown of the industrial site will force those North Koreans to seek work elsewhere north of the 38th parallel, at least temporarily. In the South, there have been accusations that assets and materials have been frozen by officials in the North. Each side is blaming the other for the crisis.

Even presumptive allies China and Russia have expressed concern for North Korea’s recent military actions, especially the nuclear test and the recent launch of a ballistic missile. North Korea has been engaged in a robust effort to test new weapons technologies. An attempt to launch a missile from a vertical launch tube in a submarine may have failed last fall; observers near the test site said that no rocket or missile emerged from the tube, but that debris could be seen ejecting from the submarine, an indication of a possible misfire.

China has expressed outrage at North Korea’s recent actions, but is also skeptical of the deployment of many new U.S. military weapons, including the THAAD system, which China says can be just as easily used to attack China or Russia as it can be used to defend South Korea.

The U.S. military has been working more closely with South Korea, along with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and other Pacific partners to assure those allies that the U.S. will provide security if North Korea attempts to assert itself militarily outside of its borders.

In a possibly related story, a high ranking military chief close to Kim Jong-un was executed last week, charged with the crimes of “factionalism, misuse of authority, and corruption,” at least according to the state-controlled media in Pyongyang. Gen. Ri Yong-gil, chief of staff for the North Korean Army, was apparently shot to death by a firing squad, though reports differ on the day and time of his execution.

Ri’s execution is one of about two dozen high-profile executions to take place in less than two years, part of what experts believe is an attempt by the young Kim—who took the reins of power after the death of his father in 2011—to consolidate power and rid the top echelons of any dissenters. Last April, he had another top military commander and Defense Minister, General Hyon Yong-chol, executed by anti-aircraft gunfire in front of a large audience (which included other generals). The previous year he had his own uncle executed for allegedly plotting against the supreme leader.

U.S. officials and some intelligence analysts in Europe also believe that North Korea engages in overt acts of cyber-warfare. The 2014 Sony Pictures cyberattack was believed by the FBI and the White House to have been carried out by a super-secret military squad trained in digital attacks and computer hacking.

Last week, U.S. military and intelligence officials met with their counterparts from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines to discuss security measures as well as share intelligence in an effort to better coordinate a regional response to any actions by North Korea.

Related Thursday Review articles:

North Korea Says Loudspeakers Are an Act of War; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 10, 2016.

North Korea Claims Hydrogen Bomb Test; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 6, 2016.