S. Korea to strengthen defense capabilities to counter threats

Amy Wilson, May 13, 2019, 9:08 a.m.

South Korea will continue to strengthen its missile defense capabilities to better counter all kinds of threats, including North Korea's short-range missiles, the defense ministry said Monday.

The pledge came in response to growing concerns over the country's missile defense capabilities after North Korea fired two short-range missiles last week, just five days after the launch of a barrage of projectiles into the East Sea.

Experts have said that in last week's launches, Pyongyang appeared to have test-fired its version of Russia's Iskander ballistic missile, a ground-to-ground missile that is believed to put the entire Korean Peninsula within its range.

"Our military has been developing our own missile defense capabilities with a focus on the Patriot system in order to counter threats posed by North Korea's short-range missiles," defense ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told a regular briefing. The Patriot system defends against ballistic missiles.

"We will continue to beef up such capabilities aimed at effectively fending off threats from all directions," she added.

As a bedrock scheme to counter Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats, South Korea has developed and operated a "system to respond to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction."

The system, which was formerly known as the "three-axis" defense system, consists of Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), an operational plan to incapacitate the North Korean leadership in a major conflict; the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike platform; and the Korea Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD).

Asked about the military analysis of exactly what North Korea fired during the two rounds of firings this month, the ministry again said it has not yet determined the details, including whether the short-range missiles the North fired last week were ballistic missiles or not.

"The South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing details of the North's projectiles, and no details are available at this stage," Choi said.

After the North fired the projectiles on Thursday, the South's military said they were believed to be short-range missiles. But it stopped short of determining whether they were ballistic missiles that the North is banned from launching under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

As for their May 4 launch, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Pyongyang was presumed to have tested "a new type of tactical guided weapons" as well as multiple launch rocket systems.

Experts have put forth evidence to back their assessment that what the North fired were ballistic missiles. Ankit Panda, a senior editor at The Diplomat, an online news magazine, claimed that the serial number inscribed on the North's missile included the Korean letter "ㅈ," part of serial numbers the North usually gives to ballistic missiles.

"ㅈ," a consonant of the Korean alphabet, is thought to indicate it came from North Korea, as the North's official full name in Korean starts with that character. Experts say the communist country has inscribed serial numbers like this on its key strategic weapons.

"We are well aware of such contents, and have been tracking relevant issues," JCS spokesman Col. Kim Jun-rak told reporters, adding that the Seoul military does "not add any specific significance" to such an inscription and that not all North Korean missiles bear "ㅈ" marks.

Meanwhile, the ministry said inter-Korean military communication lines remains open despite Pyongyang's recent launches.

"The military communication channels between the two Koreas have been operated normally," spokesperson Choi said.

As part of efforts to build confidence and reduce tensions, Seoul and Pyongyang restored a military communication line for fax and telephone connections on the west coast in July last year and another in the east the following month.

"The two sides have had regular contacts twice a day, which may imply that North Korea is leaving the door for dialogue open," a government source said.

"But exchanges of opinions via those hotlines on how to implement the inter-Korean military pact have come to a halt, which I believe will be temporary," he added, referring to the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September aimed at stopping all hostile acts between the two sides.

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