Seoul has been wrestling with the question of whether to support the deployment of the U.S.-backed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system (THAAD) in South Korea. Given that the main reason for deploying THAAD in South Korea is ostensibly to handle possible future missile attacks from North Korea, it’s worth asking the question: How much should Seoul really worry about North Korean missiles?
When North Korea revealed six new missiles carried by a transporter erector launcher in April 2012, not many believed Pyongyang actually had the ability to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Some even said at that time the missiles North Korea displayed were made out of paper.
However, South Korea and the United States later concluded that some of the missiles might be real ICBMs and named the model “KN-08.” A year later, the hypothetical KN-08 became something that the U.S. needed to worry about. In 2013, North Korea conducted a missile test of Pyongyang’s “Hwasong-13,” a missile that the U.S. believes could reach the American mainland.
It has been almost three years since North Korea revealed the KN-08. Given Pyongyang’s obsession with missile development, analysts believe that North Korea has likely made dramatic advances in its missile development skills over past three years. Pyongyang has unveiled new platforms dubbed the KN-09 (a multiple rocket launcher) and KN-10 (a surface-to-surface missile). KN-09 is a multiple rocket launcher, similar to the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (M270 MLRS.) The KN-09 launcher is equipped with a GPS system and has a missile range of 230 km, putting the U.S. military base in Pyongthaek in South Korea within reach. Not much has been revealed about KN-10. North Korea claimed they developed a new missile in August last year, when it launched a missile while the Pope was visiting South Korea. This missile, which flew about 220 km, may have been the K-10.
The KN-11, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, is also believed to be under development. North Korea conducted the first flight test of the KN-11 missile in January, sooner than expected, according to U.S. defense officials quoted by the Washington Free Beacon.
North Korea is believed to spend about one trillion won (roughly $1.1 billion) on national defense every year. That’s less than half of what South Korea spends – Seoul’s national defense budget for 2015 is set as about 37 trillion won ($3.34 billion). However, proportionally, North Korea spends more on national defense than South Korea does.
In fact, a recent report by the Heritage Foundation emphasized that North Korea’s military is “significantly” larger than Seoul’s, based both on troop numbers and “many categories of military equipment.” South Korea’s Ministry of Defense reacted right away to the report, saying that it’s meaningless to compare South Korea’s cutting-edge arms to North Korea’s outdated technology. Thus South Korea implies that it still has superior military power.
However, the U.S. government has pointed out in its annual report on North Korea that despite its deterioration of its conventional capabilities, the North Korean military poses a serious threat to the ROK, its other neighbors, and U.S. forces in the region.