WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- One would expect South Korea to be a "hare" on ballistic missile defense, given the scale of the immediate threat it faces from North Korea, right across the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily and densely armed border in the world. However, Seoul ended 2007 with significant long-term BMD programs in place, but projecting an extremely relaxed "tortoise" timetable for them. The reasons for this at-first surprising complacency are deeply rooted in South Korea's politics, history and geographical circumstances.
It is certainly the case that South Korea remains in far greater danger of ballistic missile bombardment from North Korea than Japan: Seoul itself, with its 14 million people, lies within range of North Korea's estimated 13,000 rockets and artillery tubes on the other side of the DMZ.
South Korea already plays host to a battery of 64 PAC-2 and 3 missiles operated at a U.S. military base in the country. However, under President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "Sunshine Policy" of increasing contacts with and reducing tensions with the North, South Korea took the decision not to join the U.S.-led BMD development and deployment program the way Japan did.
As we have previously reported in these columns, South Korea's Defense Ministry continues work on its BMD program known as Korea Air and Missile Defense. However, the anticipated pace of development and deployment of KAMD is very leisurely and displays none of the sense of urgency that former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi successfully injected into his country's BMD program.
South Korean planners anticipate having a battery of Patriot PAC-3 missiles to be bought from the United States some time after 2015 and a battery of homemade medium-range surface-to-air missiles that are expected to operate with a significantly shorter range than the PAC-3s.
The South Koreans anticipate that when their BMD system is operational, missiles fired by the North would be picked up by Spy-1D radar systems deployed on Aegis destroyers of the King Sejong class and by the South's BMEWS ballistic missile early-warning radar system. However, the King Sejong ships will not be equipped with SM-3 interceptors like their U.S. and Japanese navy counterparts.
However, South Korea does not expect to be in a position to purchase any SM-3s from either the United States or Japan. South Korea has not poured the same huge investment into the development of interceptors like the SM-3 that Washington and Tokyo have. Even if the KAMD system is built and deployed, it will have strong ties to, and even be dependent on, the much larger and more sophisticated U.S. BMD system.
South Korea certainly cannot devote the scale of resources to BMD that the United States and Japan do. It makes sense for them to build BMD systems that can defend against a relative handful of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the case of the United States, or intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the case of Japan and Taiwan.
None of those three countries has their main center of population within range of 13,000 very-short-range rockets, multiple-launch rocket systems and artillery tubes, as Seoul is. It is clearly impossible to construct some kind of "Iron Dome" -- to use the Israeli name for the systems the Jewish state is rapidly seeking to develop against its own very-short-range ballistic missile threat -- to neutralize a danger like that.
South Korea continues to commit to its "Sunshine Policy" of steadily defusing tensions with North Korea, while retaining strong military forces at the same time. Given its finite, although considerable financial, industrial and manpower resources, South Korea cannot risk pouring so much money into BMD that its conventional forces lose their superiority and deterrent power against the North.
Also, given its geography, South Korea cannot afford to alienate China by becoming too dependent on the United States for its BMD program in the 21st century, unlike the island nation of Japan, with its strong local regional navy. The need to remain on warm terms with Beijing also factors into Seoul's caution on developing BMD, despite the obvious immediate threat it faces.
South Korea therefore ended 2007 still as something of a tortoise on BMD, but one that was still determined to inch forward on its programs. It seemed unlikely that 2008 would reveal whether this would prove strategically wise or disastrously foolish.