Seoul fired missiles into sea, but analysts note it may not be able to respond as quickly in a war scenario
SEOUL—In the dead of night, at 3:17 a.m. on Wednesday, a South Korean air force Boeing 737 early warning aircraft detected the first missile launch from North Korea in more than two months.
Six minutes later, the army’s ground-based launchers, navy Aegis destroyers and air force F-16 jets began firing missiles into the waters off eastern Korea, in what was meant as a demonstration of Seoul’s readiness for conflict and its ability to hit back.
The display appeared largely successful, but security analysts said South Korea may not be able to respond as swiftly or accurately in a real wartime scenario.
North Korea launched its latest intercontinental ballistic missile—a new type of device that experts say is capable of hitting Washington—from Pyongsong, about 20 miles north of the capital Pyongyang, a site the regime hadn’t previously used for weapons tests.
According to a detailed account on Thursday from South Korea’s defense ministry, the location in the sea targeted by its military was calibrated to match the distance to the launch site to show it could hit the site if it chose to do so. President Moon Jae-in had already been notified.
But detecting missile tests is an imperfect science, involving misses as well as hits. In a conflict situation, North Korea is likely to take more steps to conceal its movements, for instance by deploying decoy launchers, said Yang Uk, senior defense researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a Seoul think tank.
In such a scenario, the likelihood falls that South Korean, U.S. or Japanese forces would pinpoint the exact launch site, Mr. Yang said. Still, he viewed the South’s response to the missile test as a success, especially considering the short time the military needed to return fire.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led U.N. Command in Korea said no U.S. or other forces participated in the response.
“What we saw Wednesday was an active response to a North Korean missile launch that South Korea calls its ‘kill chain’ system’,” Mr. Yang said. The kill chain is part of a larger defense system designed to pre-emptively strike the North’s missile systems in the case of a nuclear attack.
South Korea this year installed a U.S.-operated Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense antimissile battery that can shoot down short- and medium-range missiles, complementing its Patriot PAC-2 antiballistic missile system. The new battery has a longer-range, but it can’t cover the whole country.
A retired senior South Korean military official said that the South lacks a military satellite that can watch the North, although U.S. and Japanese satellites share images with South Korean officials in real time.
Analysts said North Korean officials install devices onto missiles that generate signals and send them to ground-based control towers. The South has a way to tap into these signals and track the missiles, they said.
But in a real missile launch targeting a South Korean, Japanese or U.S. city, the North Koreans may choose not to install them, said Jo Dong-joon, deputy director of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. This means that the South might have no way to track a hostile missile, Mr. Jo said.
The retired military official also noted that the South has a network of human intelligence in the North that may have tipped off Seoul officials about this week’s launch. He declined to give further details, citing security concerns.
Details on the South’s spy network in the North remain murky, but local media have reported in recent months that the South has lost most of its human network in North Korea in recent years.