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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
As conflict between Israel and Gaza continues to rage, the threat of Hamas rocket attacks on civilian centers and the corresponding effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system has once again come to the fore.
Simultaneously, North Korea has continued a sustained effort to draw attention to its own rocket, artillery and missile capabilities, peaking this Monday with Kim Jong Un personally supervising launch drills just miles from South Korean territory.
However, though the majority of North Korea’s DMZ-placed rocket and artillery assets have similar ranges as those belonging to Hamas and Hezbollah, South Korean military experts often say comparisons between the two are unwarranted. Namely, they cite the large difference in the size of the two groups’ rocket and mortar arsenals.
While Hezbollah caused significant social, economic and human disruption to Israel by firing more than 4,000 rockets in the course of a month in 2006, South Korean estimates claim North Korea could bombard Seoul at a rate of about 7,000 projectiles per hour in the event of conflict. That means, it has been said, that active defense systems like Israel’s Iron Dome would be essentially futile at protecting Seoul from what could be a very substantial, high-casualty onslaught.
But does that necessarily mean a system like Iron Dome really has no place in South Korea? While the North is yet to attack Seoul using its long-range artillery and rocket forces, events like the shelling of Yeonpyeong in 2010 have proven that their bombardments need not be all-out to have an impact. And even if Pyongyang was to commit to a full-scale rocket and artillery attack on Seoul, some experts say a system like Iron Dome can still help the South protect its most important infrastructure.
IRON DOME IMPACT
South Korea and Israel share “clear” similarities in the type of threat they face, Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center – Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies told NK News last week. Both countries are threatened by “huge” arsenals of ballistic missiles and rockets, Inbar said by phone, with North Korean capacities similar to Palestine’s short-range rocket threat and longer-range missiles from Iran and Syria.
As such, Inbar said that “South Korea is the most similar country in the world to Israel, in terms of (both) the number of rockets and missiles certainly…and the character of the leadership in North Korea.” But the two key differences, Inbar pointed out, were that to date Pyongyang had only struck the South with rockets in remote areas, and that Israel had developed Iron Dome, “the only operational system in the world that can defend against short-range to medium-range rockets.”
“South Korea is the most similar country in the world to Israel”
“South Korea doesn’t have such a system, which I think it should,” Inbar said, citing ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas as evidence of the utility of what he describes as an “active defense system.”
“What we see in Israel at the moment is that a lot of rockets have been fired upon us (and) most of them were intercepted by Iron Dome,” Inbar said.
“If you are intercepting several hundreds of rockets, with no such system, it means that all 100 percent of those rockets will hit populated areas and you will suffer from a lot of casualties. (But) by having an active defense system, like Iron Dome…the government has time.”
Without that time, “from day one of the first rocket, you’ll get a lot of civilian casualties,” Inbar said. “This is the situation in South Korea.”
But despite Iron Dome’s success at intercepting recent Hamas rocket fire – which Israeli Defense Forces have said have averaged 161 rockets per day – it is true that the rocketfire comes nowhere close to the 7,000 per hour capacity North Korea is suspected of having. And that’s why not all are convinced Iron Dome system is suited to South Korean needs, with military expert and former Defense 21 contributor Subin Kim telling NK News that he believed it would struggle to defend against North Korea’s capabilities.
“There is no combat-proven system for massive artillery and rocket forces. Even Iron Dome would not be able to provide enough coverage against North Korean threats along the DMZ, since, in my opinion, they are so massive in number,” Kim said in an email.
Another problem, Kim said, focuses on the economies of scale involved in defending against such a significant threat.
“Using Iron Dome against these massive bombardments is unimaginably expensive,” Kim said, alluding to battery costs of around $50 million and interceptor missiles that cost between $40,000 to $100,000 per unit.
But while it’s true that even multiple Iron Dome batteries would struggle against a full-blown North Korean onslaught, Israeli defense engineer and former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization Uzi Rubin told NK News the system could, nonetheless, be useful.
“Currently there is no other type of missile defense system that is optimized against this kind of threat”
“In such a situation a defensive system (like Iron Dome) can protect important sites such as government buildings, military compounds and power stations,” Rubin said in a telephone interview.
“Currently there is no other type of missile defense system that is optimized against this kind of threat,” he said, adding that Iron Dome was “exactly” suited to the type of rocket threat Seoul faced currently from the DMZ.
That said, South Korea’s natural terrain could prove to be more than enough defense for Seoul’s high value targets, with Kim suggesting nearby mountains could prevent much of North Korea’s long-range artillery and rocket systems from being able to target strategically important assets there.
But “of course still there remains a threat against civilians who live in the greater capital,” Kim said.
PART OF THE JIGSAW?
Iron Dome is not intended to defend against ballistic missiles, nor is it capable of preventing the type of rocket fire it was built to defend against. Therefore it has no capability to defend against hundreds of North Korean Scud and Nodong-type ballistic missiles, which with ranges of up to 500 kilometers and 1,500 kilometers, respectively, could target all of South Korea’s territory with ease. And Iron Dome cannot destroy artillery and rocket launchers north of the DMZ, something only heavy air bombardment or physical occupation could ever hope to thwart. That’s why, Israeli experts said, Iron Dome is better viewed as complementing existing capabilities, rather than serving as a single turnkey solution.
Iron Dome is not intended to defend against ballistic missiles, nor is it capable of preventing the type of rocket fire it was built to defend against
Such a system would need to stand along side a “very large offensive force” and “very accurate method of warning of the general public,” said Inbar. And although South Korea has its own systems of defense and deterrence against the North and can count on “massive retaliations from the U.S.” in the event of conflict, Inbar said if he were South Korean he “would not count on the stability and the cool mind of…Kim Jong Un.”
But Kim said that more than a decade ago – before Iron Dome existed – a former South Korean defense minister went on record to say that North Korea’s artillery and long-range rocket forces could be destroyed within six to 11 minutes after an attack was launched. That chimes with what one South Korean defense expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity, about South Korea’s current approach, describing how “limited, detectable and vulnerable” launching spots could be “entirely destroyed” with “pre-emptive…or un-proportional attacks…in the early stages of war.”
But as the 34-day long conflict between Hezbollah and Israel suggests – the reason Israel developed Iron Dome in the first place – such a rapid destruction of rocket capabilities may not be so simple.
“Taking out the launchers is not easy, because the hostile (forces) evolve techniques and methods of hiding them,” Rubin, the Israeli missile specialist, said. “To prevent short-range rockets from being fired on Seoul you need to occupy the launch sites to a considerable distance from Seoul, say 100 kilometers,” said Rubin, who added that North Korea now has “longer range rockets of up to 190 kilometers.”
CIVIL DEFENSE TRAINING
Consistent with perspectives that content Iron Dome should be viewed as a broader package of solutions, one area Israel has counted on to maintain a low casualty ratio in its current conflict with Hamas has been civil defense training. Facing frequent rocket barrages, terrorist-style attacks and even ballistic missile attacks in the 1990s, Israel has long put a premium in preparing its civilians for war through extensive civil defense training campaigns.
Inbar tells NK News that in Israel he learned civil defense training rigorously from kindergarten age, describing how every child knows how to take shelter in the event of “earthquakes and against incoming rockets or missiles.” But in South Korea, where North Korean attacks against mainland targets are all but a memory, complacency in civil defense may be creeping in.
“Unfortunately training exercises for civilians are being very poorly done,” said Kim. “South Korea is getting lax over potential incidents, whatever the kind they may be.”
While Kim said there are shelters that could “nominally” be used in the event of an attack, the problem, for him, is that they are often just basements or metro stations. And although South Korean citizens used to train as frequently as monthly for attack and would know where bunkers were, today the number of bunkers is being reduced significantly – as is the frequency of drill training.
“South Korea is getting lax over potential incidents, whatever the kind they may be”
But this could be a mistake, as Israel’s previous conflicts with neighbors have shown, something that could worsen the impact of even limited North Korean bombardments on Seoul. And even in cases when the physical damage may not always be significant, Rubin said the “political, moral and economic consequences” of rocket attacks should not be overlooked.
For Inbar, however, the answer is clear.
“Having an active defense system is a game changer,” he said. “Today I went to Tel Aviv and the siren went off, and I heard an interception. All the cafés and businesses in Tel Aviv were open and people were in the streets, so it’s a kind of strange reality, but we can manage in a continued normality because of the active defense system.”
NK News military analyst John Grisafi said that artillery rocket defense systems could “certainly” help in defending against North Korea’s conventional artillery currently capable of striking South Korea.
However, he said there were two main reasons why Seoul had not purchased the technology from Tel Aviv.
There were two main reasons why Seoul had not purchased the technology from Tel Aviv
One was logistical, particularly the greater amount of territory South Korea must defend, along with the much greater expense in purchasing Iron Dome batteries and interceptors.
“Additionally, North Korea possesses a much greater variety and number of artillery and rocket systems in higher concentrations than Hamas and other groups in Gaza,” he said. “Seoul has shown a preference for quickly locating and destroying North Korea’s artillery guns and launchers at the outset of a conflict to eliminate them as a source of projectiles over focusing all resources on interception. In such a scenario, Seoul would not likely destroy every enemy artillery piece, but would definitely reduce the threat significantly.”
The other reason speaks to relations between the two nations, particularly in arms sales.
“Seoul previously considered purchasing the Iron Dome in 2012 in exchange for Israel purchasing T-50 Golden Eagle jet trainers from South Korea,” Grisafi said. “But Israel ultimately chose the Italian M-346 Master jet trainer instead. Seoul suspected this decision was based on more politics and diplomacy than military and financial considerations and declined to purchase the Iron Dome.
“Seoul may feel that Israel, which has little-to-no stake in East Asia, may be less reliable as a source for major weapons systems. Aside from initial purchases of batteries, South Korea would have to continually rely on Israel for munitions and parts to maintain the systems. The United States – with whom South Korea is cooperating on other missile defense systems – has a much greater interest in the region.”
Main picture: IDF