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(Korean War Special) 70 years after bloody battle, rival Koreas in arms race for military supremacy

All News 06:00 June 21, 2020

By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, June 21 (Yonhap) -- Standing eyeball to eyeball for 70 years in a state of conflict after the Korean War, South and North Korea have bolstered their military capabilities, making the peninsula the world's last-remaining Cold War frontier.

To fend off the lingering dangers of communist encroachment and to rebuild the country from the ruins of the 1950-53 war, South Korea has poured huge resources into building a powerful military. And it is now equipped with advanced weapons and has made it on the list of the ten mightiest militaries in the world.

North Korea, in contrast, has devised asymmetric strategies by resorting to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction to ensure regime survival and to overcome its qualitative defensive weakness, sparking a vicious circle of arms race between the two Koreas.

North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-15 is displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang marking the 70th anniversary of the country's armed forces in this photo capture from the North's Central TV on Feb. 8, 2018. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

"North Korea has sought nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense because the regime came to believe that it could not depend on either the Soviet Union or China. As it lagged far behind the South in economic power from around the 1980s, the communist country further hinged its destiny on the nuclear programs," Ra Jong-yil, a former national security adviser, said.

North Korea has carried out six underground detonation tests and is widely believed to have significantly advanced its nuclear capabilities.

The regime is estimated to possess 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and a "considerable" amount of highly enriched uranium, and its technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead has also reached a "considerable" level, according to the 2018 defense white paper published by South Korea's defense ministry.

After the latest nuclear test at the Punggye-ri site in September 2017, Pyongyang claimed to have developed a hydrogen bomb, the most powerful form of nuclear explosive, which can be mounted atop a missile.

Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, Pyongyang said it would suspend nuclear tests as its capabilities had been verified.

But it seems to be tinkering with a nuclear card again amid stalled denuclearization negotiations with the United States. Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened a key party meeting and discussed "new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

This press pool photo shows a tunnel of North Korea's only known nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, being blown up on May 24, 2018. The North's Korean Central News Agency said tunnels, all kinds of equipment, the control center and a research institute at the site were dismantled. (Yonhap)

The development of nuclear programs has come alongside significant progress in the modernization of its missile arsenal. After the time of managing old and decrepit weapons adopted from the Soviet Union, North Korea now boasts diverse types with various ranges to not only target South Korea but the continental U.S.

The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has an estimated range of 8,000 miles, or 12,874 kilometers, which is capable of striking any part of the U.S. mainland, according to the 2019 Strategic Digest, an annual publication by the U.S. Forces Korea.

The Hwasong-13, which can fly as far as 5,500 km, and the Hwasong-14 missile with an estimated range of 10,058 km are capable of reaching most of the U.S. mainland, the report showed. The North test-fired the Hwasong-14 on July 4, 2017, and the Hwasong-15 in November that year.

On the list of its medium-range missiles are the Pukguksong-2 with a flight range of 997 km and Nodong with 1,287 km. The Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12 missiles are classified as intermediate-range ballistic ones capable of traveling 2,890 kilometers or longer.

The communist country also has short-range ballistic missiles of SCUD-B/C/ER.

Despite a respite from major provocations since late 2017, North Korea worked to upgrade its conventional weapons that aim at its immediate neighbor and beyond following the collapse of the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in February 2019.

In 2019 alone, the regime carried out a total of 13 missile tests, and displayed several new types of ballistic missiles, including its version of Russia's Iskander, the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and super-large multiple rocket launcher, as well as an advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

"Years of North Korean provocations and development of weapons of mass destruction ... have resulted in significant hurdles to removing accumulated distrust and establishing permanent peace with a denuclearized North Korea," USFK said in the yearly report.

Late last year, Pyongyang also warned of showing off a "new strategic weapon," which may mean a new ICBM with greater range, an SLBM or a new submarine capable of launching missiles.

This photo, released by the Army on Nov. 29, 2017, shows South Korea's surface-to-surface missile Hyunmoo-II being fired. The military conducted a live-fire missile training on the same day near the eastern sea border with North Korea minutes after the North's ballistic missile launch. (Yonhap)

In the face of persistent nuclear and missile threats from the North, South Korea introduced a wide range of next-generation military assets and is building its own scheme for enhanced surveillance, detection and interception capabilities.

The response system includes the so-called Kill Chain pre-emptive strike platform and the Korea Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD), which involves several types of precision-guided missiles and other ballistic projectiles.

North Korea has massive conventional forces, with the number of its active-duty service members standing at 1.28 million as of end-2018, which is more than double that of the South's 599,000, according to the defense white paper.

The regime also has numerical superiority in such military hardware as main battle tanks, field guns, combat ships, combat aircraft and submarines.

But South Korea's quality assets appear to be enough to offset the numbers.

Major advanced weapons Seoul adopted include RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk Remotely Piloted Aircraft and the F-35A next-generation stealth fighters.

In addition to Aegis-equipped destroyers and advanced battle ships, South Korea is pushing to build 3,450-ton indigenous submarines to be equipped with ballistic missile launchers, and to secure its first light aircraft carrier.

South Korea has also maintained a tight combined readiness posture with the U.S., having responded to the North's provocations with a full spectrum of military actions, according to their authorities.

"As long as the unstable security situation on the peninsula continues, the two Koreas will continue to pursue absolute military superiority, and their military buildup that lasted for the past 70 years is bound to go on," Prof. Han Yong-sup of the Nation Defense University said.

Unfortunately, signs have become more evident that the period of thawing inter-Korean tensions will soon give way to recurrent provocations and coercion by Pyongyang. The North has defined the South "an enemy" and threatened to take military action, accusing the South of failing to prevent defectors from flying anti-regime leaflets across the border.

Last week, it blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong, and threatened to forward deploy troops to the Kaesong region and the Mount Kumgang tourist area on the east coast as well as other frontline, demilitarized areas.

North Korea has already stationed around 70 percent of its ground troops and 60 percent of its naval forces south of its capital city of Pyongyang. Most of its special forces are also deployed near the inter-Korea border, according to North Korea watchers.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) walks with U.S. President Donald Trump (C) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un toward the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, on June 30, 2019, after holding talks with Trump at the Freedom House on the village's southern side. (Yonhap)

graceoh@yna.co.kr
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