The Koreas

South Korea’s Bluff on Pyongyang’s Rocket Launch

Recent Features

The Koreas

South Korea’s Bluff on Pyongyang’s Rocket Launch

South Korea threatened to shoot down North Korea’s projectile, despite apparently lacking the capability to do so.

South Korea’s Bluff on Pyongyang’s Rocket Launch

The PATRIOT Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) system.

Credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Ahead of North Korea’s widely condemned rocket launch on Sunday, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense threatened to shoot down the projectile if it approached its territory.

“The military is strengthening its air defense posture to intercept the North Korean missile or its debris that could fall on our land or in our waters,” ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told media on February 4.

Ultimately, the rocket didn’t enter South Korean airspace and Seoul was never called to make good on its vow. In reality, however, it probably couldn’t have even it wanted to. Seoul made an empty threat, weapons experts told The Diplomat, because its missile defense system is incapable of intercepting the type of long-range rocket that was launched by Pyongyang.

South Korea’s military had said it had readied Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) surface-to-air missiles, and could call upon the United States Forces Korea to deploy its PAC-3 missiles if necessary.

But George Lewis, an analyst at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University, said the missile defense systems had ranges in the tens of kilometers, making them little use against Pyongyang’s rocket.

“So if North Korea were to fire a short range missile, such as a Scud, at South Korean territory, a system such as Patriot would have at least a chance to intercept it,” said Lewis.

“However, a space launch — or a missile test disguised as a space launch — would not pass over South Korean territory. Even if it went slightly off course and flew over South Korea, it would be far too high for Patriot to attempt to intercept.”

It could potentially intercept debris resulting from a faulty missile, Lewis said, but to little productive end.

“If there were a serious malfunction in the North Korean missile launch so that pieces of the missile would fall onto or near South Korean territory, Patriot could attempt to intercept these pieces as they fell to Earth,” he said.  “Even if successful, this would not accomplish much, just create more smaller, pieces of debris.”

Jeffrey Lewis, the founder of the website Arms Control Wonk, similarly dismissed the South Korean military’s remarks as lacking credibility. “Politicians always feel the need to do something in response to a crisis, even if that something is totally symbolic,” Lewis said. “And the fact is, so few people understand how missile defense works, that many South Koreans will be fooled.”

Japan had also threatened to shoot down the rocket, if it thought it was likely to land on its territory. The rocket passed far over Japan, but Tokyo did not attempt an interception.

The UN Security Council condemned the rocket launch on Sunday and vowed to take “measures” in response. While Pyongyang has said its long-range rockets are part of a peaceful space program and it launched what appeared to be a satellite with its latest firing, South Korea, the United States, and other countries believe the launches are an excuse to hone ballistic missiles that could one day carry a nuclear warhead as far as Alaska.