If Kim Jong-un wants South Korea to bolster its military capabilities, he’s making all the right moves.
On Sunday (Sept. 3), the North Korean leader oversaw his nation’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test, involving what appeared to be a thermonuclear device—seismologist Steven Gibbons described it as “a horrifically destructive weapon.” That followed the diplomatically isolated state sending a missile over Japan last week, marking a new level of intimidation.
South Korea is responding. For starters, it recently agreed to additional deployments of a controversial missile defense system. Known as Thaad (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense), the system has faced strong opposition from China, which complains that its powerful radar could monitor its own programs. Many South Koreans are also against it, fearing health or environmental dangers. And locals worry the system, deployed in a rural area southeast of Seoul, will make their home a military target for North Korea.
Though two Thaad batteries (each comprising six launchers and a radar system) went operational earlier this year, the administration of president Moon Jae-in suspended the deployment of the remaining four pending an environmental impact assessment. But in light of the nuclear test, Seoul said yesterday (Sept. 4), it would temporarily deploy the remaining four, leading to the system becoming fully operational.
During his campaign, Moon, who assumed office in May, called for more peace talks with North Korea, and opposed the full deployment of Thaad. Now he faces mounting pressure to take a tougher line on Pyongyang, both at home and abroad, notably from Donald Trump. The US president tweeted on Sunday: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they (North Korea) only understand one thing.”
Moon reached an agreement yesterday with Trump that an existing weight limit on South Korean missile payloads would be lifted. Currently, under an existing pact, South Korea faces a payload cap of 500 kg (1,100 lbs). Without that cap, it would be able to hit North Korea with more force in the event of a conflict. South Korea also received “conceptual approval” to buy billions of dollars worth of weapons from the US. (Not that it hasn’t purchased plenty already: From 2010 to 2016, South Korea bought nearly $5 billion in arms from the US, making it the fourth-biggest importer of American weaponry.)
Defense minister Song Young-moo told lawmakers yesterday that he’d asked Jim Mattis, his American counterpart, for US aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers, and nuclear submarines to be sent more regularly (paywall) to the Korean Peninsula. He also suggested that the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in South Korea was “worth a full review.” (The US had about 100 nuclear weapons in the country until 1991.)
South Korea has also been flexing its existing military might in recent days. Today its navy held live-fire drills in the Sea of Japan to warn against maritime aggression, and yesterday it launched ballistic missiles simulating an attack on the North’s nuclear test site. That followed drills last week—held in the same province bordering North Korea that will soon host the Winter Olympics—involving US warplanes from bases in both Japan and Guam, in addition to South Korean jets.