(News Focus) Missile defense dilemma dogging S. Korea
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- Sandwiched between North Korea's growing threats and budget constraints at home, South Korean officials are apparently in a bind over ways to bolster missile defense capabilities.
The South Korean military reiterates it is developing the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system independently from the U.S. regional missile defense networks but "interoperable" with them.
Still, many question what that actually means. Adding to public confusion are contradictory comments by top national security officials, especially about the possibility of introducing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, capable of covering far larger areas than Patriot missile units.
Speaking at a parliamentary session earlier this month, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said his troops are seeking multi-layered systems.
His comments spawned media speculation that Seoul might join Washington-led regional missile defenses.
The minister later insisted that South Korea will not formally participate in the U.S. initiative, and the purchase of THAAD is off the table.
But Kim Jang-soo, the top national security adviser to President Park Geun-hye, struck a rather vague tone about the potential introduction of THAAD to the peninsula.
"I understand that it is not being considered yet but we have to see (what will happen)," he told reporters on a visit to Washington this week.
Analysts say it seems to be true that South Korea's military is hoping for THAAD or other advanced missile defense units plus the PAC-III.
Money talks, however.
"It would be good to deploy THAAD around Daegu (some 300km southeast of Seoul)," said Chun Yung-woo, who served as national security adviser in the Lee Myung-bak administration. "But a problem is money."
The Park administration has been forced to scale back pension plans for elderly people due to long-term budget shortfalls. The South Korean military maintains it is not yet ready to take over the operational control in time of war from the U.S. due to a lack of cutting-edge weaponry and command-related equipment.
Beset with its own budget woes, however, the U.S. expects South Korea to play a larger role in solidifying shields against the North's ever-sharper swords.
Responding to a question about what South Korea should do for a stronger alliance, a senior Pentagon official said recently, "The example that always jumps out in mind in terms of the improvement is missile defense."
In April, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S., South Korea and Japan need to integrate their missile defense systems for synergistic effect.
Experts here also express doubts over the KAMD, of which the PAC-III likely will be the backbone.
"In a soccer analogy, South Korea is insisting on only having a soccer goalie and refusing to have a second line of defense," said Bruce Klingner, senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation. He pointed out the importance of teamwork by the three nations to intercept various types of North Korean missiles.
"To use another sport analogy, it's like having outfielders trying to catch a ball," he said. "The data-linking is like having the other outfielders talking to the center-fielder, telling them whether he should move in or move out to catch the ball. The more sensors you have focused on the incoming missile. the more likely you are to successfully to intercept it."
Chun, the former top South Korean presidential official, said allowing the U.S. to deploy long-range TPY-2 radars in South Korea could be an option.
But critics say such a move may unnerve China as those radars can be used to monitor its military activities near the border with Korea.
South Koreans have persistent worries that their country may be drawn into any conflicts between the U.S. and China over issues not associated with the peninsula.
"Missile defense is really a headache for South Korean officials, given grim realities involving diplomacy and domestic politics," a diplomatic source said.