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South Korea and US Strengthening Missile Defense Cooperation: A Response to North Korea’s Threat


In the face of North Korea’s escalating missile tests and nuclear ambitions, South Korea and the United States are joining forces to bolster their missile defense capabilities. This strategic partnership not only underscores the grave threat posed by North Korea but also exemplifies the importance of regional stability and security. In this article, we delve into the details of this strengthened cooperation between South Korea and the US and its pivotal role in addressing the growing menace from North Korea.

North Korea’s Escalating Threat:

North Korea’s relentless missile testing and nuclear development have raised alarm bells worldwide. In defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea persists in nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development, posing a significant danger to its neighbors and the global community. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that North Korea possesses enough plutonium for multiple nuclear weapons, raising concerns about the potential for widespread destruction.

North Korea has been conducting missile tests at an accelerated pace in recent years, and it is unclear what the purpose of these tests is. Some experts believe that North Korea is trying to develop new missiles that can reach the United States, while others believe that the tests are simply a way for North Korea to show off its military capabilities.

  • August 30, 2023: North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast. The launches came hours after the United States separately deployed B-1B bombers for allied air drills.
  • November 3, 2022: North Korea reportedly fired at least one ballistic missile off its east coast, including one, believed to be a long-range missile, that flew over and past Japan.
  • October 19, 2022: North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the sea off its east coast. The launch was the first time North Korea had test-fired an SLBM since 2019.
  • September 15, 2022: North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast. The launches were the latest in a series of missile tests by North Korea in recent months.
  • August 24, 2022: North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast. The launches came just days after North Korea test-fired a new type of cruise missile.

In June 2022, North Korea’s unprecedented launch of eight short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from several locations across the country has raised concerns in Tokyo that the nuclear-armed nation may add another dimension to its attempts to evade and overwhelm missile defenses.

Japan — despite its deployment of a multilayered missile-defense program in conjunction with the U.S., consisting of sea-based Aegis systems and ground-based Patriot Advanced Capabilities-3 systems — remains vulnerable to saturation attacks, according to some experts. They say a barrage of missiles could deplete available missile interceptors, allowing at least some of the weapons — potentially both conventional and nuclear-tipped — to slip through defenses.

According to Masashi Murano, an expert on Japanese security policy at the Hudson Institute think tank, these new-generation shorter-range missiles developed after 2019 have several traits that make them optimal for saturation attacks. The weapons are all solid-fueled, making them more mobile and easier to deploy in rapid-response situations. They are also capable of some degree of maneuverability, allowing for more accurate strikes than earlier missiles, including the extended-range Scud weapons fired in the Iwakuni attack simulation.

The Reach of North Korea’s Missiles:

Of particular concern was North Korea’s successful launch of a mid-range ballistic missile that reached an altitude exceeding 1,400 kilometers. With a potential range of 3,500 kilometers, this missile can target not only neighboring regions but also poses a threat to U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific. Adding to the alarm, North Korea showcased images of Earth taken by a camera mounted on the ballistic missile. North Korea’s unveiling of Earth images taken by a ballistic missile-mounted camera signifies advancements in missile re-entry technology—an essential component for ensuring a warhead’s survival during the terminal phase of flight.

North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s claims of successfully testing a hydrogen bomb have further escalated tensions. Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, claimed to have conducted an H-Bomb test, marking the fourth overt nuclear test since 2006. This alarming move was accompanied by threats of “indiscriminate” nuclear strikes, specifically targeting the United States and South Korea. These threats coincided with the largest-ever military exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. North Korea perceives these annual joint war games as a rehearsal for a potential invasion.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan have all condemned the tests, and they have called on North Korea to stop its provocations. The United Nations Security Council has also imposed sanctions on North Korea in response to its missile tests.

South Korea and US Respond:

In June 2022, leaders from South Korea and the United States expressed profound concern over North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear ambitions. During their meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit, President Yoon Suk-yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and U.S. President Joe Biden recognized the serious threats posed not only to the Korean Peninsula but also to East Asia and the world.

In August 2023, US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met at Camp David and agreed to a number of measures to strengthen their missile defense cooperation. These measures include:

  • Deploying more US missile defense assets to South Korea. This includes the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the upper atmosphere. The United States has already deployed a THAAD battery to South Korea, and this agreement calls for the deployment of additional batteries.
  • Developing new missile defense systems. The United States and South Korea are working together to develop new missile defense systems that can better counter North Korea’s advanced missiles. These systems could include lasers, directed energy weapons, and hypersonic interceptors.
  • Sharing more information about North Korea’s missile programs. The United States and South Korea will share more information about North Korea’s missile programs, including intelligence on test launches and technical details about the missiles. This will help the two countries to better understand the threat posed by North Korea and to develop more effective countermeasures.
  • Conducting more joint exercises. The United States and South Korea will conduct more joint exercises to test and improve their missile defense capabilities. These exercises will help the two countries to work together more effectively and to deter North Korea from launching a missile attack.

The strengthening of missile defense cooperation between the United States and South Korea is a significant development. It sends a clear message to North Korea that the two countries are committed to defending themselves against the threat of North Korean missiles. The cooperation is also a sign of the close security alliance between the United States and South Korea, which has been in place for over 70 years.

Strengthening Extended Deterrence:

The three leaders agreed to explore means to reinforce “extended deterrence,” which encompasses the U.S. military’s capability to deter attacks on its allies, including South Korea and Japan. Recognizing the need for upgraded deterrence capabilities, they emphasized the importance of strengthening the trilateral partnership between Japan, the U.S., and South Korea.

The Vital Role of Missile Defense:

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a pivotal component of this strengthened missile defense cooperation. The United States is committed to defending South Korea under the Mutual Defense Treaty, with nearly 29,000 troops deployed on the Korean Peninsula.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a missile defense system developed by the United States to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The system was deployed to South Korea in 2017 in response to the increasing threat posed by North Korea’s missile program.

The THAAD deployment has been met with mixed reactions. The United States and Japan have welcomed the deployment, while China and Russia have strongly opposed it. China has argued that the THAAD system could be used to spy on its military capabilities, while Russia has said that the system could destabilize the region.

The deployment of THAAD has also had a significant impact on South Korea’s relations with China. China has imposed economic sanctions on South Korea in retaliation for the deployment, and there have been reports of Chinese tourists boycotting South Korean businesses.

THAAD System

The THAAD system is designed to intercept short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase. This kinetic energy-based approach minimizes the risk of warhead explosions and nuclear contamination. THAAD’s high success rate in missile intercept tests makes it a vital addition to South Korea’s defense capabilities, significantly enhancing its protection against missile threats.

What sets THAAD apart is its unique hit-to-kill approach, a game-changing strategy that eliminates the need for a warhead on the intercepting missile. Instead, THAAD relies on the sheer kinetic energy generated upon impact to obliterate the incoming missile, rendering it harmless. This approach effectively mitigates the risks associated with explosive warheads, whether conventional or nuclear. However, it’s important to note that chemical or biological warheads could disintegrate or explode upon impact, potentially posing environmental contamination risks.

THAAD comprises five critical components, each playing a vital role in its mission: interceptors, launchers, the AN/TPY-2 X-band phased-array radar operating in its Terminal Mode (TM), THAAD Fire Control and Communications system, and THAAD peculiar support equipment.

  • Interceptors: The interceptors are the missiles that are used to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. The THAAD interceptor is a hit-to-kill missile, which means that it does not have a warhead. Instead, it relies on its kinetic energy to destroy the incoming missile.
    THAAD interceptor missile
  • Launchers: The launchers are used to deploy the interceptors. Each launcher can carry eight interceptors.
    THAAD launcher
  • Radar: The radar is used to track and identify incoming ballistic missiles. The THAAD radar is an X-band, active electronically scanned array radar. It is the world’s largest ground/air-transportable radar.
    THAAD radar
  • Fire control and communications: The fire control and communications system is used to track the interceptors and guide them to the incoming missiles.
  • Support equipment: The support equipment includes vehicles, generators, and other equipment that is needed to operate the THAAD system.

The THAAD interceptor, developed by the renowned U.S. company Lockheed Martin, is an exceptional feat of engineering. Its remarkable speed, clocking in at a maximum of 2,800 meters per second (equivalent to a staggering 10,080 kilometers per hour), allows it to swiftly intercept and neutralize threats. Notably, the interceptor can engage targets at altitudes ranging from 150 to 200 kilometers, effectively reaching beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The backbone of THAAD’s radar capabilities is the AN/TPY-2, a cutting-edge X-Band active electronically scanned array Radar. This radar system, known for its mobility, is the world’s largest ground/air-transportable radar, enhancing THAAD’s overall effectiveness and coverage.

A fully operational THAAD battery boasts nine launcher vehicles, each armed with eight intercepting missiles. This formidable arsenal is complemented by two mobile tactical operations centers (TOCs) and the ground-based radar (GBR), working in tandem to ensure comprehensive defense coverage.

THAAD’s Effectiveness

The deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system in South Korea would significantly enhance the country’s deterrence capabilities. While South Korea already operates a variant of the U.S. Patriot anti-missile system, these systems have limited operational ranges of only 20 to 35 kilometers and are primarily designed to intercept incoming missiles at relatively low altitudes. In contrast, the THAAD missile boasts an estimated range of 200 kilometers, making it substantially more effective than existing and planned South Korean defense systems. It can defend military forces, population centers, and critical targets at high altitudes over a larger area, providing more reaction time and broader coverage.

The THAAD missile interceptor has demonstrated an impressive track record, with a remarkable 100% success rate since testing began in 2005. The AN/TPY-2 radar, a key component of THAAD, has not missed a target in over 50 system flight test missions and over a thousand satellite tracking exercises. Consequently, the deployment of a THAAD system in South Korea would significantly reduce the threat posed by incoming missiles from North Korea.

Moreover, according to the U.S., the THAAD system would complement the existing Patriot system in South Korea by adding an additional layer of protection. This layered defense approach would bolster deterrence against North Korea by increasing uncertainty regarding its capabilities and complicating its security calculations.

South Korea is also enhancing its anti-nuclear and anti-missile capabilities by purchasing 170 Taurus long-range air-to-surface missiles. The Taurus missiles, with a range of 500 kilometers, can be carried by South Korean Air Force fighter jets. They are designed to detect and strike targets concealed behind concrete walls as thick as six meters and are impervious to North Korean jamming.

The range of the Taurus missiles means that, if launched from near the border between the two countries, all of North Korea would be within their reach. This capability aligns with South Korea’s Kill Chain missile defense program and its policy of “active deterrence,” which involves preemptively detecting and neutralizing active nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

It’s important to note that the AN/TPY-2 radar in the THAAD system has two modes of operation: forward-based target identification and terminal tracking. In the forward-based mode, the radar performs functions such as searching, acquiring, tracking, and differentiating inbound threats. Its sensitivity is such that it can identify and track objects up to 2,900 miles away.

However, the deployment of THAAD has raised concerns, particularly from China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has expressed worries that THAAD’s X-band radar could reach deep into China if configured in “look mode.”

AN/TPY-2 radars have two modes of operation: either as a forward-based target identification system or as a terminal tracking system.  In forward-based mode, the AN/TPY-2 runs the show, it searches, acquires, tracks, and differentiate inbound threats. It is said that the portable radar system is so sensitive it can identify and track a game of catch up to 2,900 miles away

China argues that having an AN/TPY-2 radar in South Korea could enhance the U.S.’s ability to intercept Chinese missiles and potentially threaten the reliability of China’s nuclear second-strike capability. This aspect underscores the geopolitical complexities surrounding the deployment of advanced missile defense systems in the region.

However, some also oppose THAAD  pointing out THAAD’s limitations, “it cannot defend against a short range attack on the Seoul region, where nearly half the country’s population resides, and that in the event of a major attack THAAD’s 48 interceptor missiles will do little to stop the more than 1,000 missiles North Korea could fire, And they argue that the limited military advantage is not worth the cost of damaging relations with China.” write Brian Padden and  Carla Babb in Global Security.

China and Russia Express Strong Opposition

China and Russia have vehemently voiced their objections to the deployment of the THAAD system. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, alongside his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, openly criticized the move during a press conference. Wang expressed deep concerns, stating, “It will directly affect the strategic security of China and Russia respectively if it is deployed.” Both nations are gravely troubled by the prospect of the United States installing the THAAD system in South Korea, believing that it surpasses the genuine defense requirements of the countries involved.

China, in particular, has raised questions about the rationale behind the U.S. and South Korea’s desire to deploy THAAD. This highly expensive system, designed to protect against missiles operating at altitudes between 40 and 150 kilometers, comes with a hefty price tag of approximately $827.6 million per battery. Chinese authorities argue that such a deployment would be an imprudent and excessive investment, given Seoul’s proximity to North Korea.

Even a former United States Forces Korea commander, while supporting the deployment of THAAD, has acknowledged that the most effective means of delivering a nuclear weapon to Seoul today is through aircraft or potentially drones, should North Korea enhance its unmanned technology. Many Chinese analysts perceive the exaggerated North Korean threat as a pretext for justifying the deployment of a system that appears to be aimed at China.

Sergey Lavrov further criticized the United States, alleging that North Korea’s tests are being used as an excuse to deploy what he termed the U.S.’s “global antiballistic missile defense.” This critique reflects concerns not only about South Korea but also about the potential expansion of THAAD deployments to Europe with the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and to the Middle East with the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Regional Missile Defence Cooperation

Chinese defense planners have expressed concerns that the deployment of a network of X-band radars could potentially undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. This apprehension stems from the belief that these radars could provide the United States with extended warning times and improved detection capabilities, ultimately shifting the strategic balance of power in favor of Washington.

South Korea has recently unveiled plans for a missile-sharing agreement with the United States, enabling both nations to exchange real-time information regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile activities. This move signifies a commitment to bolstering regional missile defense capabilities in the face of evolving threats.

Furthermore, the United States and Japan have already taken steps to integrate their respective missile defense systems. This cooperation between allies has raised concerns in China about the potential emergence of a joint missile defense system involving South Korea, the United States, and Japan. It’s also feared that this could lead to increased military collaboration among these nations. The formation of such a regional missile defense network could pose challenges to China’s ability to either threaten or defend against U.S. and allied assets in the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, there is a valid basis for Chinese military concerns, given that the U.S. Army is actively developing the Integrated Air and Missile Defense program. This initiative aims to seamlessly integrate all Air and Missile Defense (AMD) sensors, further enhancing the effectiveness and coordination of missile defense systems.

As regional tensions continue to evolve, discussions and cooperation in the realm of missile defense will remain a complex and sensitive issue. The dynamics between these nations will play a critical role in shaping the future of regional security and stability.


As North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear ambitions continue to escalate, the strengthened missile defense cooperation between South Korea and the United States becomes increasingly critical. This partnership not only serves as a deterrent against North Korean aggression but also reinforces regional security and stability. Despite objections and concerns from neighboring countries, the commitment to safeguarding the Korean Peninsula and East Asia remains unwavering. Missile defense systems like THAAD play a pivotal role in deterring threats and ensuring a safer future for the region.







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