Nuclear deterrence in Southkorea: Hope for and heated debate about the Kill Chain

Nuclear deterrence in Southkorea: Hope for and heated debate about the Kill Chain

As the old deterrence strategy is getting reviewed in the West, NATO and the USA, it is also getting revised in Asia, especially Southkorea and Japan. In Japan, they now want to use the new military strategy to introduce „enemy base strike capabilities“, which can now also attack military bases and infrastructure in mainland China and North Korea, as well as  South Korea with the so-called „kill chain“ now also wants preemptive wars against North Korea in the event of  a nuclear war threat.. After Trump made clear to Kim Yongun that any further testing of intercontinental missile against the USA would bring him “fire and fury” and that the “little fat man was on a suicide mission“ and met with him, Northkorea stopped its missile tests. But there was no real deal, the sanctions remained and Trump was followed by Biden who didn´t want to meet the dictator Kim and also not easen the sanctions, while Northkorea offically claimed at the party congress that it was in deep economic trouble, maybe face a new malnutrition or even starvation crisis,  China tried to easen Northkorea´s burdens. However when Kim felt that he didn´t get the attention by Washington under Biden as he got under Trump, he started the missile tests again , allegedly also an intercontinental ballistic missile directed against the USA with the metamessage: „Speak to me!“. And the timing was well selected: During the Ukraine crisis. He also started to threaten Southkorea again and now after Southkorea´s moderate neo-Sunshine president Moon was taken out of office by the new populist antifeminist, neoliberal and hawksih shooting star Yong, Southkorea also starts to rethink its deterrence strategy. The term Kill chain, the Southkorean threat to launch a preemptive strike against Northkorea is getting now very popular in the K-Pop-Country. The kill chain is not a new concept, but before was in combination with KMPR and then thought as one of three elements of a three axis strategy. (the articles below explain all the terms). The former goverments also spoke of he kill chain. Also already under the former government under President Moon, but not with great ambitions like under Yong and as the central element as War on the Rocks reports:

“South Korea, Conventional Capabilities, and the Future of the Korean Peninsula

Ian Bowers and Henrik Hiim

February 11, 2021

In August 2020, South Korea’s defense minister revealed that his country had “succeeded in developing a ballistic missile with sufficient range and the world’s largest warhead weight to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula.” The new “Frankenmissile” is part of Seoul’s conventional counterforce and countervalue strategy, which is meant to hold North Korea’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, as well as its leadership, at risk independently from the United States.

This strategy is often overlooked by policymakers and analysts, who are more focused on discussing Kim Jong Un’s pledges to develop new missile and nuclear capabilities and how the new administration of President Joe Biden should approach the nuclear issue. However, as we highlight in a new article in International Security, South Korea’s strategy increasingly has a determining impact on strategic stability on the Korean Peninsula and on prospects for denuclearization.

Elements of South Korea’s Strategy

South Korea’s approach has three core components. The first two, the Kill Chain strategy and the Korean Air and Missile Defense system, were revealed in 2012 and the third, the Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation strategy, was announced in 2016 following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. The Kill Chain strategy entails detecting imminent North Korean missile attacks and then pre-emptively destroying the country’s missile launch capabilities. The Korean Air and Missile Defense is a largely indigenous, layered — the Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation strategy — involves the use of multiple kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to target North Korean leadership facilities following any North Korean attack.

In 2019, the administration of Moon Jae-in renamed the Kill Chain and Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation strategies in an effort to bolster reconciliation initiatives on the peninsula. However, there were no significant alterations in procurement plans or seemingly in the operational intent of the three components beyond a statement from the government that these capabilities would now be focused on omni-directional threats and not just on North Korea. However, the threat from the north still dominates South Korean strategic thinking and while the Moon government continuously emphasizes engaging with Pyongyang, South Korean investments in advanced weaponry have only intensified during his presidency. South Korea has drastically improved its precision-strike capabilities, investing in a range of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets as well as a burgeoning force of air-, sea-, and ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

It is understandable that South Korea would pursue an independent deterrent capability given the benefits it offers. Although a conventional counterforce strategy remains extremely challenging to operationalize, it is likely to have a deterrent effect, as even the slightest chance that an attack could fail or that South Korea could pursue catastrophic retaliation may stay the hand of North Korean leaders. It may therefore reduce the risk of North Korean attempts to “decouple” the United States and South Korea and of a North Korean nuclear attack in the event of the United States abandoning its security commitments on the peninsula. An additional long-term benefit of Seoul developing a deterrent capability is that advanced missile capabilities will bolster its nuclear latency and ease the path to obtaining a credible nuclear deterrent if South Korea ever wanted to build the bomb.“

However, it was not that much in the center before as critics claimed that it was a nonstarter as Kill chain needed surveillance and an information network for the detection of the preparation of a Northkorean strike against the South and it was perceived as the weak link in the three-axis deterrence strategy. Therefore Kill Chain was renamed for some time in Kill Web. But now Kill Chain is the central term under President Yong again.  Other critics compared the losses and gains of such a Kill chain strategy as Northkoreea´s conventional army and artillery could also cause disastrous damage to Seoul and Southkorea without a nuclear attack by the North. However ,Northkorea´s new threats and the new South Korean president lead to the constellation, that the Kill chain is becoming very popular in Southkorea´s security policy and military establishment. Another driving force is that detection by satellites, big data, algorithms, etc. has been revolutionized and could make the Kill Chain much more realistic.We want to give a (global) review about the discussions about the Kill Chain deterrence strategy by a selection of articles and a You Tube video which can give an impression about the radical change in the deterrence discussion:

The video claims that the goal was not regime change, but to threaten to decapitate the Northkorean leadership that they would think about starting an attack on Southkorea twice and more. And it remains to be seen how China and the USA would react to such a Kill Chain strike or a Northkorean attack as the video also points out that these new Southkorean systems could also hit Chinese targets. Some experts argue that such a Southkorean capability could make China believe that the USA wouldn´t intervene and that Southkorea could manage such a crisis without greater US involvement, could decouple it from a direct Sinoamerican conflict or even war on the Korean peninsula. Therefore China might accept Kill Chain more than it does accept US missile defense systems, troops, etc. . However, each Korean crisis if not contained could cause a Sinoamerican conflict. However, in Southkorea´s and the US security establishment there is now a heated debate about the Killchain we want to portray:

“July 28, 2020

Kill Chain and Massive Punishment and Retaliation: South Korea’s Plan for War with North Korea

Two strategies define Seoul’s plans for the North: non-regime change retaliation—and leadership decapitation.

by Caleb Larson

Perhaps one of the most important foundations on which South Korea’s defense strategies rest are two military doctrines, the Kill Chain strategy, which would try to forestall North Korean attack on the South, and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, a serious attempt at regime change. Below, we offer a quick rundown of each and why they matter. 

Kill Chain

South Korea’s Kill Chain is in essence a detection and preemptive strategy. The doctrine is heavily reliant on South Korea’s military-political intelligence, which constantly monitors both North Korea’s domestic political situation, as well as keeps tabs on the North’s military assets. If intelligence assessments indicated that the North is preparing its military assets for an attack on South Korea, Kill Chain would target those assets. For example, Seoul would in particular target North Korea’s long-range artillery (which is among the most numerous in the world), as well as their intercontinental and ballistic missiles sites.

Though the threat from these specific North Korean assets would be difficult to eliminate completely, doing so would be of the utmost importance to defending Seoul, the South Korean capital. With a population of nearly ten million, the city is by far the largest city on the Korean Peninsula. Located a mere fifty kilometers, or about thirty miles from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, it is particularly vulnerable to attack from the North.

Kill Chain is a preemptive measure. As such, South Korea maintains that invoking Kill Chain is not an attempt at regime change, but an operation with limited tactical goals. This is one of the crucial differences between Kill Chain and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation.

Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR)

In addition to targeting the aforementioned missile and artillery targets, the KMPR doctrine has a broader scope that does focus on regime change by targeting North Korean leadership. Consequently, the deterring effect of KMPR is thought to be much greater than Kill Chain.

If KMPR were invoked, the Ryongsong Residence—the North Korean presidential palace—would be an obvious target, though there are certainly other places of residence for North Korean leadership. The KMPR mission is not limited to North Korean political leadership, but would also target the North’s military leadership, much of which is thought to be geographically centered in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted a source familiar with KMPR as saying, “every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon.” The goal: complete destruction of the city, the source explained. “In other words, the North’s capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map.”


The Hermit Kingdom has one of the largest standing armies in the world, at around 1.2 million soldiers. If Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation were to be launched, a ground war of epic proportions would almost certainly follow, though how effective a North Korean fighting force would be without senior leadership remains open for debate. Still, the opening hours of either of these scenarios would be incredibly consequential. Pyongyang beware.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

March 26, 2021 Topic: South Korean Army Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: South Korean ArmySouth KoreaNorth KoreaKill ChainBallistic Missiles

“How South Korea’s ‘Kill Chain’ Could Strike North Korea First in a War

This system is designed to detect and stop a potential deadly North Korean attack.

by Mark Episkopos

North Korea is again ramping up its nuclear weapons tests, prompting alarm from the United States and Washington’s East Asian allies. Following years of escalation with its Northern counterpart, South Korea has developed a multi-layered doctrine to control for the imminent possibility of a nuclear conflict with Pyongyang. One of the core components of South Korea’s strategy is the ‘Kill Chain’—here is what it means, and how it figures into Seoul’s broader plan to counter the growing threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

The “Kill Chain” concept gained international attention following its appearance in a 2012 white paper. The paper stated that the “the ROK [Republic of Korea] military will decisively strike not only the origin of enemy provocation, but also the command and support forces behind the provocation.” The paper added that “the ROK military is not only reinforcing its precision surveillance, target acquisition, and precision strike capabilities in the Northwest Islands and the surrounding areas, but is also significantly strengthening its ‘immediate retaliation forces’, including air defense and anti-missile defense capabilities, as well as airborne and standby forces.”

Kill Chain is, at its core, a detection and preemption strategy. According to this plan, South Korea will leverage its formidable network of intelligence and surveillance assets to continually monitor North Korean political developments and military movements. Upon receiving confirmation that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is preparing to attack, the ROK military will initiate a series of rapid precision strikes against key North Korean military assets; these can include long-range artillery installations as well as any and all DPRK missile sites, both nuclear and conventional. To control for the risk of further escalation, Kill Chain will not target North Korea’s leadership or non-military infrastructure.

Then there is the retaliatory variant of Kill Chain, intended as a response to a North Korean nuclear or major conventional strike. Dubbed Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), the plan covers the same ground as Kill Chain but adds a decapitating strike against DPRK’s political and military leadership that is aimed at producing regime change. According to South Korean sources, KMPR reportedly involves the total destruction of Pyongyang. “Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon. In other words, the North’s capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map,” a source told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Although experts have argued that South Korea previously lacked the resources to unilaterally execute a sweeping preemptive strike along these lines, ROK’s reconnaissance and military capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Still, the Kill Chain doctrine has prompted some lingering concerns. The plan hinges on a timely and accurate intelligence assessment that not only points to an imminent North Korean attack, but is able to identify all the relevant sites to be destroyed. The verifiability threshold must be high enough to eliminate the possibility of a mistake, but low enough to ensure a sufficient window for a full response. Within minutes, ROK’s military and civilian leadership will have to make a series of rapid decisions authorizing the strikes. The ROK must then be ready and able to defeat all possible North Korean counterstrikes against Seoul. The Kill Chain plan can veer off course at any point in this long sequence of events, potentially with disastrous consequences for the South Korean side.

Nevertheless, Seoul at least has some cause for cautious, long-term optimism. Many of these implicit risks continue to grow smaller in proportion with South Korea’s rapidly expanding capabilities; if nothing else, the successful execution of Kill Chain is substantially more feasible today than when it was first conceived.

“Kill Chain preemptive strike? Don’t make Kim Jong-un laugh

Posted on : Jan.14,2022

By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

The concept of the Kill Chain system, which is supposed to deter North Korea from launching nuclear-tipped missiles, first appeared in South Korea during the administration of President Lee Myung-bak, when the country was still in an uproar after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island. The concept was cobbled together by working-level officials at the Ministry of National Defense after newly appointed Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin instructed them to develop a response to North Korea’s nuclear program.

The crux of the Kill Chain system is its “left of launch” capability to detect preparation for a missile launch in North Korea and to take out the missile before it’s launched. The term “left of launch” derives from the fact that “preparation” appears to the left of “launch” in the typical phases of a missile attack — preparation, launch, ascent and descent. This is tied to the concept of a preemptive strike, which is supposed to suppress the enemy’s launch capabilities within 30 minutes of detection.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the Kill Chain program at the time on the grounds that “adopting a concept that isn’t practical because of a lack of capabilities would greatly distort our fighting power.” But under pressure to come up with something to show the public, the Ministry of National Defense went ahead and announced the adoption of the system.

Since then, the South Korean military has kept refining plans to acquire that capability through reconnaissance satellites and missiles, but they’re still far from completion. The military failed to analyze any aspect of the conical hypersonic missile that North Korea fired on Jan. 5 — including the speed, flight path and warhead type.

Despite not having any technical data about the launch, Seoul downplayed North Korea’s projectile as being “a ballistic missile, not a hypersonic missile.” In apparent irritation, the North Koreans fired yet another projectile that was similar to a hypersonic missile on Tuesday. That illustrates the limitations of South Korea’s current technology.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate for the People Power Party, recently said that if North Korea launches a missile with a speed of Mach 5 or above, “a preemptive strike would be our only recourse” since aerial defense would be impossible at that speed.

Yoon based his remarks on the concept of the kill chain, but he’s mistaken about something. When it was developed in 2010, the kill chain was based on the assumption that most of North Korea’s missiles require liquid fuel and fixed launchers. But 12 years later, the North is quickly converting its missile force to solid-fuel missiles that can be fired from mobile launchers.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea long ago abandoned the conventional approach of spending half an hour fueling missiles and then firing them from vulnerable military bases. It’s not easy for South Korean intelligence assets to determine where North Korean missiles would be launched from, and if the missiles don’t use liquid fuel — that is, if they don’t require the preparatory fueling stage — the Kill Chain is useless.

This remains true even if North Korea keeps using liquid fuel. While launching its new missile on Jan. 5, the North said it had tested a “missile fuel ampoule.” If accurate, that would make any thought of detecting North Korean missiles “left of launch” truly naïve and unrealistic.

In recent conversations, younger generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff have told me that the system’s concept has become obsolete because the preparation phase is being eliminated from North Korean missile launches.

For such reasons, even the US is transitioning from a kill chain to the new concept of a “kill web.” This refers to a futuristic weapon system composed of hundreds of low-orbit satellite clusters, mass data transmission, and autonomous weapons that track and destroy the enemy’s missile launchers.

Before talking about launching a preemptive strike on North Korea, Yoon ought to have considered what the target of such a strike would be, what methods would be used, whether the military can make those preparations, and how effective it would be. Surely that level of due diligence is requisite for a man seeking to become the leader of our nation.

Such hardline bluster against North Korea may tickle people’s fancy and help Yoon pick up votes, but it’s no more than national security populism, devoid of substance and lacking any apparent sincerity. Such remarks only reveal the true character and quality of South Korea’s political leaders, which, if anything, is likely to make Kim Jong-un laugh.

In the past, the Korean Peninsula was like a stationary Go board, with South and North Korea taking turns placing black and white stones. But today’s battlefields are in flux — the Go board itself is in motion. Bombing North Korean military bases and airfields would only kill innocent people without changing the course of the war.

It would be truly odd if that weren’t understood in Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign, with its full complement of former generals and national security experts. Yoon and the People Power Party need to reflect upon how irresponsible it is to invoke outdated military concepts and package them as if they could preserve public safety.

“The politics of the “kill chain”

Posted on : Oct.22,2013

To be effective, kill chain policy must take place within context of autonomous defense and engagement with N. Korea

By Choi Jong-kun, Yonsei University professor

In a speech for Armed Forces Day on Oct. 1, President Park Geun-hye discussed keeping up a strong allied defense system with the United States. In particular, she said South Korea would be “quickly securing abilities to counter nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, including through the Kill-Chain system and the Korean Air and Missile Defense system” in order to “make sure that the North Korean regime recognizes that the nuclear arms and missiles to which it clings are no longer useful.”

On Oct. 11, Adm. Choi Yoon-hee said at his National Assembly confirmation hearing to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would “retaliate without hesitation” in the event of an enemy provocation.

“We would reduce not only the source of the provocation but any supporting and commanding forces to rubble,” Choi declared at the hearing. “If the enemy does decide to provoke us, we will make them bitterly regret their mistake.”

Together, Park and Choi’s remarks give a sense of how strongly committed South Korea’s leaders are to a deterrent against North Korea.

The greater sense of a need for national security clearly stems in large part from tensions that erupted on the peninsula after North Korea launched a long-range rocket last December and carried out a third nuclear test in February of this year. As those responsible for security, the administration, and the military in particular, has to consider the worst-case scenario. In this case, the scenario they need to prepare for is a nuclear-armed North Korea miniaturizing its weapons and loading them onto medium- to long-range missiles. The idea of a “kill chain” emerged as part of that plan.


What is a kill chain when used as a deterrent?  

A kill chain is a preemptive strike system that targets North Korean missiles before they are launched. More specifically, it is a process by which the military uses its various intelligence assets to detect, track, and carry out a precision strike on a target. It is also meant as a military deterrent against North Korea – sending the message that South Korea’s armed forces are willing to take preventive action by attacking the expected source of a nuclear missile launch if it judges one to be imminent.

Obviously, most South Koreans hope the worst-case scenario never comes to pass. The idea of a more flexible policy approach with Pyongyang may be an extension of that hope. But if we consider that the goal of any North Korea policy, whether it is based on engagement or prepare, is to not permit provocations from Pyongyang, then the kill chain strategy is clearly a significant step.

It is also one that needs to be scrutinized like any security strategy – especially when it is being paid for with taxpayer money. In other words, there needs to be an objective consideration as to whether the kill chain is realistic, whether it can actually stop North Korean provocations before they start, and whether it will improve the country’s security posture.

The idea of “deterrence” needs to be considered before any discussion of a kill chains’ effectiveness. The word “deter” includes senses of both prevention and punishment. A deterrence strategy involves more than just defending the country against an enemy attack; it is an active concept, a commitment to carrying out an even more damaging counterattack. In addition to connoting the ability to defend and punish, the term “deterrence” also carries the sense of flattening anyone who dares attack first.

There is an irony to all this: a country’s deterrent is, in the final analysis, based on how closely the two sides think alike. In other words, a deterrent is only effective if the other side shares the same value system. To put it simply, it has to value its territory and sovereignty, and its citizens’ lives and property, as much as we do our own. This is the only way it can recognize the signal and shy away from any provocations. The psychological factor behind the deterrent is the fear that an attack could lead to retaliation that will destroy everything you hold dear. In short, a deterrent is determined by a number of different factors: military capabilities, the willingness to punish provocations, and the other side’s rational calculations.


The concept of the Kill Chain. which is targeting steps for thetime sensitive target.

Is S. Korea even capable of carrying out detection and strike?

The question then, is whether South Korea is capable of employing the kill chain strategy to beef up its security. The current “vision for national defense” has six components to a successful kill chain. First, intelligence authorities have to be able to detect signs of a North Korean attack within one minute of launch. Second, they need intelligence – also within one minute – on where and how the attack will take place. Third, the top military leader has to be able to order a preemptive strike within three minutes. Fourth, the strike has to be carried out before North Korea carries out its own. Fifth, authorities have to be able to rate the success of the strike – that is, whether it did in fact knock out the source of the provocation. And finally, they have to be able to respond to an enemy counterstrike.

What are the South Korean military’s current detection and strike capabilities? Here the holes are numerous. It has no military satellites. It is no high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle. Indeed, it has little more that can be put to military use than the Arirang-5 multi-purpose satellite, the Geumgang and Baekdu reconnaissance aircraft (which are capable of recording and listening in on front-line areas), and the radar on the navy’s Aegis vessels. In short, there is little to nothing it can detect on its own. It simply does not have enough eyes to observe North Korea. Some have blamed this on an overdependence on US intelligence. But even if the Ministry of National Defense were able to share all military intelligence with the US in real time, there are still very basic questions as to whether it could detect all of North Korea’s major attack installations and sensitive targets within one minute. One of the most well-known failures came last winter, when military authorities in South Korea and the US were unable to detect signs of the launch of North Korea’s 30-meter-tall Unha-3 rocket, which had been left exposed at its launch site in Tongchang for several days. The focus now is on how – and if – South Korea’s military will be able to detect strategic installations throughout North Korea.

Even if signs of a nuclear strike can be detected within one minute, and a target can be set, another problem remains. The only conceivable scenarios where North Korea might use a nuclear weapon on South Korea would be a quasi-state-of-war, or a situation where local war has erupted, or is about to erupt, in the border regions. In such cases, the president would have to exercise his or her authority to order a preemptive strike. This is the key phase for the kill chain: the crucial moment in a military emergency that calls for a political determination from the president – the point when the powers invested in the leader are invoked. The question that arises, then, is whether the South Korean president would even be able to issue such an order alone under exigent circumstances.


The crucial OPCON variable  

South Korea does not hold wartime operational control (OPCON) on its own. Even if it possessed physical kill chain capabilities, the president would still need to discuss the matter within the Combined Forces Command framework before issuing the order to strike. This creates a contradiction between the kill chain on one hand, and the main issue of the moment – postponement of the OPCON transfer – on the other. Time and money would be enough to establish the physical capabilities for a kill chain. But if the decision is made to push back the transfer – which would give South Korea the authority to make its own decision on whether to strike the source of a North Korean attack at a time of severe threat – this raises the question of whether Seoul is actually committed to the kill chain. The North Korea deterrent is only complete when OPCON is transferred to South Korea as scheduled and Seoul is fully committed to carrying it out.

Imagine the following scenario: signs of an imminent North Korean attack have been detected, and the President has exercised her authority to order an independent strike. At the moment, South Korea’s military possesses surface-to-surface cruise missiles (the Hyeonmu-3), surface-to-surface ballistic missiles (Hyeonmu-1 and Hyeonmu-2), ship-to-ground missiles (the Haesong-2), and submarine-launched missiles (the Haesong-3). But most experts question the accuracy of this “top-of-the-line weaponry.” Frequent malfunctioning has seriously hurt the credibility of the South Korean-developed weapon system. And the current missile system is incapable of striking the source of North Korean provocations from deep in or behind mountains or inside tunnels.

The answer to the problem is to send in the fighter jets. The most effective strike weapon the Air Force possesses is the Slam-ER, with a range of 270 km. But even if it scrambles its top-of-the-line F-15K fighters to launch the Slam-ER from south of the armistice line, it would still be unable to strike targets in North Hamgyong Province. The military had hoped to address this shortcoming by purchasing the long-range JASSM joint air-to-surface missile, but the US government nixed the sale. The next option would be to purchase German-made Taurus missiles, but this creates a technical problem, since they would have to be placed on US-built fighters. Once again, South Korea is learning a lesson in the importance – and elusiveness – of autonomy over its own defense.

Even if it is strongly committed to deterring North Korean provocations, this commitment is just rhetoric unless the military can back it up with capability. The administration of President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) – the same one that conservatives blasted as “North Korea-friendly leftists” – raised the defense budget by an average of 8.8% annually over its five-year term. Indeed, the only real deterrent assets the South Korean military currently possesses, including the F-15K, the Peace Eye early warning aircraft, and the Navy’s Aegis-equipped vessels, were all acquired during the Roh administration.

The administration of Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak (2008-13), harped on the importance of national security at every opportunity. So how did it fare? Over five years, the defense budget was raised by an annual average of just 5.3%. Late in the Roh administration, the decision was made to purchase the Global Hawk, a high-altitude UAV that would be an important asset in detecting and setting targets in North Korea. The plans quickly vanished when Lee questioned why such an expensive purchase was being made when the US would provide its assistance anyway. Now South Korea finds itself having to purchase an older Global Hawk model at a price that is nearly four times higher.


Commitment to deterring North Korea 

President Park Geun-hye may have described the kill chain and Korean Air and Missile Defense system as the linchpins of the North Korea deterrent, but her defense budget raises questions about Seoul’s commitment to the first of them. Defense spending for 2014 is set to rise by just 4.1%. The kill chain budget was slashed from 1.116 trillion won (US$1.05 billion) to 999.7 billion won (US$941.7 billion) – a difference of about US$110 million. Particularly deep cuts were made to medium- and long-range air-to-surface guided missiles, satellite tracking systems, and improvements to the Hyeonmu missiles. The Park administration did say it planned to hasten introduction of the kill chain, moving it up from the mid-2020s to the early part of the decade. But the planned budget raises serious questions about feasibility. Supposing the OPCON transfer is delayed to reflect the security environment – with all the concessions that entails – the next question is how all the hammering on the kill chain pledge will look to Pyongyang when the defense budget is no longer increasing.

It has been said that there are no conservatives or progressives when it comes to South Korea’s security. This is true enough, but consideration should be given to the fact that it is the country’s autonomy over defense that underpins the North Korea deterrent, and that this cornerstone itself depends upon a stronger, more practical deterrent. In that sense, the Park administration’s first defense budget comes up somewhat short.

A final fact to consider is that the final target, North Korea, is needed to complete the kill chain. That is, Pyongyang has to be convinced of Seoul’s commitment to its deterrent. Even if South Korea has perfect capabilities and a strong commitment to using them, the deterrent effect will be only minor if North Korea is not aware of it. This raises the question of just how Seoul can convince Pyongyang that it means business. The way to do that is to give concrete proof of South Korean autonomy, Seoul’s ability to defend itself. And for that to happen, the OPCON transfer needs to take place on schedule. It would send a clear message to Pyongyang to any provocations would result in resolute retaliation. Another step that needs to be taken is the development of more balanced armed forces: establishing independent North Korean surveillance capabilities and improving the combat aviation skills to project military power at medium and long ranges.

And through all of this, there is one other thing South Korea should not lose sight of: the need for dialogue. It definitely needs to send Pyongyang the message that it will not accept provocations and is willing to punish them. But if there are no provocations, then it should come up with a more flexible North Korea policy. This means assuring Pyongyang that a stable security environment on the peninsula and a relationship of reciprocity will help the North achieve its economic recovery.

This sort of environment is needed for the kill chain deterrent to have a positive effect in promoting peace and stability. The talk about “striking sources of provocation” rings hollow when South Korea’s capabilities and commitment are in question, as they are right now. Indeed, the belligerence may have the unintended consequence of fanning concerns about the security situation. It is a message South Korea’s leaders should take to heart: the kill chain starts with stronger military capabilities, and it won’t be complete without a commitment to autonomous defense and engagement with Pyongyang.

“S. Korea renames ‚three-axis‘ defense system amid peace efforts

17:31 January 10, 2019

SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) — South Korea has renamed its „three-axis“ defense system, a bedrock scheme to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, in line with ongoing efforts for inter-Korean reconciliation and peace, Seoul’s defense ministry said Thursday.

The new name, roughly translated as „system to respond to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD),“ appears intended to mitigate a sense of deep hostility infused in the previous name.

The three-axis 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).

The ministry said that KMPR and Kill Chain have been renamed „overwhelming response“ and „strategic target strike,“ respectively. KAMD has been changed to the „Korea-style missile defense.“

The ministry cautioned that the name change does not mean that it would ditch its push to build the defense system.

„We will proceed with the efforts to build our assets for the system as planned,“ the ministry said in a text message sent to reporters.

Speculation has persisted that Seoul would adjust the three-pronged system as it pushes for a series of trust-building and conventional arms control measures with Pyongyang to help facilitate efforts for a lasting peace on the divided peninsula.

„It’s all about preparation

February 8, 2022

Kim Min-seok
The author, a former editorial writer and director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, is a senior researcher of the institute.

 With less than one month left before the March 9 presidential election, controversy heats up over the subject of preemptive attacks against North Korea after it fired various types of ballistic missiles, including hypersonic ones, in January. After opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol insisted on a preemptive attack on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities through the Kill Chain, his rival Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) denounced Yoon as a “warmonger.”

An exercise of self-defense can be divided into a preemptive attack and a preventive attack. The first is carried out at clear signs of an imminent enemy attack to avert massive damage whereas the second is conducted to remove the roots of future damage in advance. Therefore, a preemptive strike involving unavoidability is increasingly accepted in international law, while a preventive strike is not. Colin Gray, a professor of international politics at U.S. Army War College, argues that a preemptive attack can hardly be found to be wrong, but a preventive war requires justifications for the war and unequivocal intelligence to judge an enemy’s intention.

A preemptive strike is Israel’s Six Day War with Egypt and Syria in 1967. At that time, Egypt deployed troops to the Sinai Peninsula to help Syria and attempted to blockade the Straits of Tiran, a gateway to trade for Israel. Jordan and Iraq also joined forces to wage war against Israel.

Pushed into a corner, Israel felt a war imminent. Judging it could perish if it lost in the war, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt on June 5. Israeli fighter jets flew over the desert at an ultralow altitude and destroyed 300 out of 450 military aircraft in Egypt, nearly wiping out the Egyptian Air Force. After the war ended with Israel occupying a buffer zone three times larger than Israel, the international community accepted the justification for the preemptive attack.

But such an attack is not easy to launch. During the first nuclear crisis involving North Korea in 1994, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry threatened to stop its nuclear programs at a risk of war and President Bill Clinton considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear facilities near Pyongyang. Uncle Sam attempted to deploy two aircraft carriers and 33 warships to the waters off the coast of Wonsan on the East Sea to bomb the facility. But Clinton cancelled the plan after being briefed about the projected deaths of 1 million South Koreans if he had approved the attack.

Another case in point is the Iraq War in 2003. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in the following year. After the Bush Doctrine on a war against terrorism helped blur the boundaries between preemptive attack and preventive attack, the United States invaded Iraq, but its legitimacy is still being questioned.

Operation Babylon — a surprise airstrike conducted by the Israeli Air Force on June 7, 1981 against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq — also constitutes an excessive preventive strike. Though the reactor was part of a nuclear plant, Israel bombed it to eliminate a future threat beforehand. The same can apply to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Can South Korea’s preemptive strike be justified at a peak of North Korea’s nuclear provocation? In January 2010, former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young threatened a preemptive strike at signs of North Korea preparing a nuclear attack due to “too big damage expected.” The Ministry of National Defense still maintains its “aggressive defense posture” at times of crisis.

On what occasions would North Korea fire a nuclear missile toward South Korea? If it does so in a peace time, it wants to get some gains or the upper hand in negotiations. Yet it would not fire missiles all at once. Before launching them, it would compel South Korea to accept its demands by creating extremely hostile atmosphere like the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.

Or it could be tempted to use nuclear weapons during an actual war. According to a war scenario, North Korea sends submarines, dispatches special forces, and fires cannons and missiles intermittently before starting an all-out war. If it ratchets up the level of provocation, the defense ministry escalates the Defcon — the South Korea-U.S. joint defense-readiness condition — to Level 1, a state of war.

North Korea also can use tactical weapons to overcome its weakness in conventional combat with South Korea. If it does, our defense line can collapse rapidly with no time left for the U.S. nuclear umbrella to activate. Under such circumstances, South Korea can activate the Kill Chain and launch a preemptive strike at nuclear and missile facilities in the North.

In the South, presidential candidates are talking about a preemptive strike from different angles. Lee pointed out that “our preemptive attack in peace times is an act to break the peace.” His comment is not entirely wrong. But his rival Yoon from the PPP underscored the need for a “preemptive strike if North Korea attempts to launch a nuclear attack at times of crisis.”

Given the gravity of the issue, we must find feasible ways to minimize the ramifications of the North’s nuclear retaliation after we launched a preemptive strike — including augmenting our ability to detect ominous signs from North Korea in advance — instead of approaching the issue from divergent perspectives.

Seoul faces conundrum over option of North Korea preemptive strike

N. Korea’s mounting threats increase necessity of preemptive plan 

By Ji Da-gyum

If South Korea faces an imminent attack from nuclear-armed North Korea, what is the most viable military option to defend the country and prevent incalculable and irreparable damage?

Seoul-based experts say South Korea would have no option but to consider launching a preemptive strike, although the anticipatory use of force would come with a certain price. That price could far outweigh potential gains, experts say.

But the bigger problem is Pyongyang‘s mounting artillery, missile and nuclear threats that not only make a preemptive strike plan more indispensable, but also restrain Seoul’s preemptive strike capabilities.

As North Korea’s nuclear and missile prowess is proportional to the threat of preemptive nuclear attack, South Korea cannot and should not give up on a preemptive strike plan.

The correlation clearly depicts South Korea’s deteriorating security situation and the conundrum concerning a preemptive strike that the country has long wrestled with.

Heated debate on preemptive strike
A preemptive strike has drawn public attention in Seoul, as the issue is at the center of political disagreement with around 40 days left until the presidential election.

The main opposition People Power Party’s presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol this month raised the necessity of launching a preemptive strike with the Kill Chain system, when asked how to prevent missile threats by North Korea.

Yoon said it was virtually impossible to intercept a missile carrying a nuclear weapon if it travels at a speed of Mach 5 or greater, reaching the Seoul area within just a minute.

The campaign of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung launched blistering criticism and maintained that “there has been no leader who directly and publicly addressed a preemptive strike on North Korea.” The camp said a preemptive strike was an “extremely risky scenario” given that “there are high chances that it would turn into an all-out war.”

But not surprisingly, South Korea has continued to develop and secure independent preemptive strike capabilities while developing the Kill Chain system as part of a three-axis system since 2012. 

The triad consisted of the Kill Chain, the Korea Air and Missile Defense and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, which has since been renamed the “Nuclear-WMD Response System.”

The Moon Jae-in administration has incorporated the Kill Chain and the KMPR into a “strategic strike system,” which seeks “deterrence by both denial and punishment to deter and counter omnidirectional, asymmetric threats,” the 2020 Defense White Paper said. 

To that end, the military has continued to build “forces equipped with long-distance surveillance capabilities and precision strike capabilities.”

Preemptive vs. Preventive strike
Then, what is a preemptive strike? And what is its significance?

In general, a preemptive strike is recognized as an anticipatory use of force to defend a country against a perceived imminent but not actually armed attack. 

The US Defense Department defined a preemptive strike as an “attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent,” as part of the Bush Doctrine of the George W. Bush administration.

But a preventive strike is initiated based on the belief that “military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk.”

The Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states in June 1967 is a rare example of such a preemptive attack, conducted by Israel. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a preventive war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction.

It is crucial to recognize the difference between a preemptive and preventive strike. A preemptive strike can be justified as an act of preemptive self-defense under certain circumstances, although there has been no universal and undisputed yardstick for judging the legitimacy.

Article 51 of the UN Charter stipulates that the charter does not proscribe the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”

But as there have been divergent interpretations of an armed attack, questions still remain on the morality and legitimacy of a preemptive war.

Feasibility of preemptive strike plan
There are multitudinous factors that restrain Seoul’s preemptive strike capabilities, including tardy progress in the transfer of wartime operational control.

Yang Uk, an associate research fellow at the Asan Institute, pointed out that there are three main pillars — “detect first, decide first and strike first” — that would enable South Korea to launch a preemptive attack against North Korea’s imminent attacks.

But South Korea’s weakness in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities against North Korea and its overdependence on the US’ ISR assets pose major hindrances.

More importantly, the South Korean president’s ability to decide to launch a preemptive strike, which would entail a heavy political burden, is also a key determinant.

“The stage of making a decision is also greatly instrumental,” Yang said. “This is not just a military determination, but both a military and a political resolution.”

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, pointed to North Korea’s development of solid-propellant missiles with enhanced survivability as one of the major restraints.

Solid-fuel ballistic missiles can be stored, transported and fired with a shorter-preparation time from transporter-erector-launchers, giving South Korea only a 15-minute window to respond.

“Seoul has to detect signs (of imminent attacks), identify targets, make a decision and launch a strike within less than 15 minutes,” Park said. “It would be immensely difficult to carry out an attack on the actual battlefield.”

Additionally, North Korea’s pursuit to miniaturize nuclear warheads and develop and variegate dual-capable missiles able to deliver both conventional and nuclear payloads has made it extremely challenging for Seoul to discern whether Pyongyang intends to launch nuclear attacks.

“Seoul would be unable to identify whether missiles deliver conventional or tactical nuclear warheads even when signs of imminent missile launches are detected,” Park said, pointing to the KN-23 and KN-24 short-range ballistic missiles launched this month as an example of newly developed dual-capable missiles.

The geographical proximity between the two Koreas and thousands of artillery and rocket systems deployed across the full length of the Demilitarized Zone would impose another restriction, said Choi Hyun-ho, a military columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

American think tank Rand Corp. estimated that North Korea has deployed 4,800 medium-range artillery pieces with a maximum range of 25 kilometers across the DMZ in its “North Korean Conventional Artillery” report in 2020. 

Approximately 950 long-range artillery pieces that can reach Seoul with its population of around 10 million people and the surrounding area are deployed near the North’s city of Kaesong.

The US think tank warned that North Korean artillery strikes “could cause thousands of casualties in just a minute and more than 100,000 in an hour.” 

“We must completely and simultaneously neutralize medium- and long-range artillery threats if we launch a preemptive strike. But it doesn’t seem feasible,” Choi said.

Choi also pointed out it is practically improbable to incapacitate or destroy innumerable missiles in North Korea at one go.

North Korea’s strategic placing of long-range missiles along its border with China would also aggravate South Korea and the US’ decision-making process.

“Pyongyang has deployed most of the long-range missiles along the North Korea-China border, which makes it extremely tough and complicated for South Korea and the US to launch a preemptive strike,” Choi said.

“In a word, North Korea has multifarious options (to deter South Korea’s preemptive strike),” Choi added. “But Seoul has countless constraints.”

Sole military option against N.Korea’s attacks
Then, should South Korea abandon a preemptive strike plan?

Experts view a preemptive strike as the sole military option in the case of an imminent attack from Pyongyang, especially since North Korea has diversified its delivery vehicles to carry nuclear weapons.

“It is not feasible yet. But we have to prepare for a preemptive strike as there are no other military options,” Park said. “It is inevitable and imperative to develop the feasibility (of the plan).”

Yang underlined that a preemptive strike would be the one and only option against North Korea’s imminent asymmetric and nuclear attacks on South Korea, which would inflict irreparable and incalculable damage.

“If North Korea uses weapons capable of delivering nuclear warheads, we ought to assume that the country will launch a nuclear attack,” Yang said. “North Korea should take the risk as a nuclear-armed state.” 

Political leader’s public endorsement
But opinions diverge as to whether it is appropriate for a presidential candidate to explicitly support a preemptive strike plan.

Kim Young-jun, a professor at the Korea National Defense University, pointed to the peril of Yoon capitalizing on a preemptive strike for “political gains” in the electoral race.

An influential politician or a political leader’s public endorsement of a preemptive strike would cause disadvantages to their foreign policy direction, particularly at this point. In short, the costs of such a move would far exceed its benefits.

“Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol limits his diplomatic options at a time when South Korea is preparing for the next five years,” Kim said. “Yoon seems to be seeking to win people’s votes, but he is now giving up his diplomatic tools.”

Kim explained the US and the former Soviet Union had not threatened each other with preemptive strikes during the Cold War, although both sides prepared for a plan.

Park underscored that Seoul should face up to reality. Pyongyang has pursued development of dual-capable missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, as well as more survivable and maneuverable ballistic missiles that can penetrate and incapacitate missile defenses.

South Korea should look at the big picture and have a comprehensive discussion of North Korea’s mounting missile and nuclear threats, rather than clouding the picture and making a preemptive strike a political issue.

Park pointed out that it was essential to assess North Korea’s intention and threats and South Korea’s missile defense capabilities, and seek ways to reinforce military capabilities at this juncture.

“It is very regrettable that the ruling and opposition political parties argue over the statement while such discussion is absent.”

Nonetheless, experts say stressing the need to launch a preemptive strike to deter North Korea’s existential and rapidly growing threats to defend the country is unavoidable.

“We are asking the question equivalent to whether the US president can press a nuclear button in case of nuclear attacks by an enemy,” Yang said.

“No one wants to go ahead with the option. But at the end of the day, we will be attacked or face another war unless we demonstrate our capability of launching (a preemptive) strike at any moment.”

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