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In Korea, it’s about who has the sharpest missiles — and the ability to shoot them down

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
A TV screen shows an image of North Korea’s missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on March 10, 2023. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a frontline artillery drill simulating an attack on an unspecified South Korean airfield as he called for his troops to sharpen their combat readiness in the face of his rivals’ “frantic war preparation moves,” state media said.

The heavens far above the stratosphere may be the battleground in “Star Wars” against North Korea’s vaunted hypersonic cruise missiles. The U.S. Forces Korea command showed off its highest-flying answer to attacks from the North while U.S. and South Korean forces last weekend were winding up their first full-scale joint war games in six years. 

The exercise of “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense,” known by the acronym THAAD, fortified the U.S.-South Korean alliance at a time when North Korea is escalating its missile tests and loudly rejecting calls to give up its nukes. More than ever, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is investing resources into fabricating more warheads while his people, beyond his own elite circle, sink deeper into poverty and hunger reminiscent of the famine of the 1990s in which an estimated 2 million died from hunger and disease.

In never-ending trials of military strength on the Korean peninsula, the display on the THAAD base on a former golf course located 150 miles south of Seoul leaves no doubt that one decisive factor in a second Korean war will be who has the sharpest, strongest missiles — and the ability to shoot them down. Primed for targeting enemy missiles within 125 miles at altitudes of more than 90 miles, THAAD is intended for the defense of the southern tier of South Korea, including the sprawling port complex of Busan and nearby nuclear power plants.

Nobody’s openly suggesting another THAAD base, but American and South Korean commanders eventually may call for a second THAAD facility closer to the line with the North. As of now, Patriot missiles, with far shorter ranges, defend Seoul, the port city of Incheon and the huge base at Camp Humphreys, 40 miles south of the capital, headquarters for the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

For sure, commanders must anticipate “Star Wars.” That’s why the U.S. Space Force, established several years ago as a separate branch of the armed forces, has stationed its first overseas unit at Osan Air Base near Camp Humphreys. North Korea has yet to stage its seventh underground nuclear test, its first since 2017, but Kim Jong Un, since inheriting power from his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, has ordered more than 200 missile tests, including those of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America. 

It was to combat these threats that the “remote” launcher, bristling with its fearsome missiles, was deployed for the first time at the THAAD base. The North Korean missiles may have the explosive power and accuracy for carrying warheads to targets near and far, but deployment of the launcher warned that a missile attack on the South would provoke an immediate response.  Simultaneously, American and South Korean jet fighters in joint exercises showed they, too, would be ready to inflict retaliatory strikes on North Korean launch sites.

The U.S. command publicized the launcher, while North Korea was boasting of multiple tests of drones and cruise missiles for nuclear attacks. Did the Americans want the North Koreans to know they were ready for them? Why else release photographs of the THAAD launcher laden with missiles? There was no attempt at covering up the exercise, other than what may be the most top-secret part — the radar that’s able to detect enemy missiles when fired and follow their trajectory.

The North claimed to have created a “radioactive tsunami” by launching missiles “tipped with a test warhead simulating a nuclear warhead.” What were they talking about — a real tsunami or a few waves or ripples in the sea? The North Korean state media said the exercise was “to alert the enemy to an actual nuclear crisis and verify the reliability of the nuclear force,” but it’s hard to take their rhetoric literally or seriously.

As important as was impressing North Korea with the strength of resistance to attack, the THAAD exercise also was staged to convince often skeptical South Koreans of the need for building the base in the first place. It’s been the target of sometimes violent protests since before it opened in 2017. Demonstrators maintain a vigil near the gate and not infrequently block traffic in and out, making it difficult to construct permanent facilities for the small contingent stationed there.

The base also has inspired bitter recriminations from China, which claims the radar that is intrinsic to THAAD is really directed not so much at North Korea as at China’s military activities. THAAD can “see” from 870 to 3,000 kilometers, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The Americans insist they’re only watching the North, but who’s to say they don’t also have their eyes on China?

So outraged were Chinese leaders that they forbade many South Korean companies from operating in China after the first THAAD missiles and launchers were implanted on the base nearly six years ago. The Chinese also banned group tours to South Korea — until then a tremendous source of revenue — though individual tourists can still go there. The ban hit particularly hard at the scenic southernmost Korean island of Jeju, among the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

Just to make sure nobody missed the point of the THAAD exercise, the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea released images of the launch vehicle, declaring it had enhanced “combat readiness” and “defense posture.” The statement made clear the value of the base in a brave new era when “Star Wars” may decide the fates of millions down below.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Kim Jong Un North Korea missile tests THAAD US-South Korea military exercises

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