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South Korea Takes Different Path To Japan For Missile Defense
file photo of a North Korean missile.
file photo of a North Korean missile.
by Martin Sieff
Washington (UPI) Dec 28, 2006
Japan and South Korea are both advanced industrial democracies with strong economies close to each other in Northeast Asia, and long-time allies of the United States. So why are their ballistic missile defense programs so radically diffferent?

Last week in BMD Focus, we cited reports from the respected Seoul newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, that South Korean military planners had decided to create a Korean Air and Missile Defense command system to protect their country from ballistic missile threats. However, the reports made clear that the South Korean planners were taking a very different approach to the problem, primarily from neighboring North Korea, than Japanese defense planners across the Sea of Japan.

Japan and South Korea are both relatively small, densely populated nations. They are two of the most successful export-driven economies in the world and are both stable, democratic nations. They both have enviable huge trade surpluses. Yet they are taking radically different approaches to the challenge of creating effective BMD systems to protect their major centers of population. The reasons for this are deeply rooted in geography and historical experience.

Japan over the past seven years has jumped into ballistic missile defense eagerly. South Korea is entering it reluctantly. Japan's BMD program is part of a bold and ambitious strategtic vision for revitalizing the nation's high-tech economy as well as defending its cities. That vision belonged above all to one man, Junichiro Koizumi, prime minsiter of Japan for five years until last September and potentially the nation's most important leader in the past half century.

Koizumi was inspired by his hero, Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the importance of advanced technology defenses in preserving the island of Britain, almost exactly the same size as Japan, from destruction in the 1940 Battle of Britain. It was Japan's failure to have any comparable fighter aircraft and radar high-tech defenses that made it totally vulnerable to the firebombing of the U.S. Army Air Force XX Bomber Command under Gen. Curtis Le May in the terrible spring of 1945. At least 3 million people died as 23 cities were burned to the ground in the B-29 fire raids.

Koizumi was able to win strong popular support for his ambitious BMD policies because the Japenese people were fearful of the threat from North Korea, driving at breakneck speed to develop its own reliable intermediate-range ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

By contrast, South Korea at the same time sought to lower the walls of ignorance, fear and prejudice felt by North Korean leaders towards it through its Sunshine Policy of reducing tensions and building up trade and diplomatic ties with the North. Despite the huge North Korean concentration of troops and firepower along the Demilitarized, successive Seoul governments never felt the degree of alienation and fear towards the North that Japanese leaders did. However, North Korea's claimed successful nuclear missile test this year and its determination to push ahead with missile programs capable of threatening Japan and even the United States has forced South Korean military leaders to the conclusion that they very much need stronger BMD defenses too.

Japan's BMD system may hypothetically one day be needed to defend the country against China and possibly even Russia. But the immediate and primary threat, as for South Korea, is from North Korea. However, no Japanese city faces the huge conventional artillery and very short-range rocket threat that South Korea's capital Seoul, with 14 million people, faces from North Korean forces already deployed across the DMZ.

South Korea's BMD emphasis, therefore, is going to be entirely on short-range and very short-range BMD systems. The South Koreans are likely to look with interest on the programs that Israel and U.S. corporations like Rafael, Israel Aircraft Industries, Raytheon, and others are trying to develop against Hezbollah's renewed rocket build up in southern Lebanon against the Jewish state. Although South Korea is vastly more populous than tiny Israel and is considerably larger, the strategic nature of the tactical, non-nuclear short-range threat both countries face is very similar.

Japan does not have to worry about very short-range defense systems or conventional artillery or mass rocket mortar bombardments. Therefore all its BMD investment can go into longer-range defenses. South Korea is looking to Patriot PAC-3s too, but in nothing comparable to the number Japan does.

Unlike Japan, South Korea does not contemplate any need to develop even hypothetical BMD defenses against Russia and judges it unrealistic to do so against China. Chinese-Korean relations have historically been warm through most of recorded history. Both countries have traditionally seen Japan as their major potential enemy. But even if China should become a potential threat at some point, because South Korea shares the same land mass with the most populous nation in Asia it would be unrealistic for it to expect to defy China's conventional military strength however good Seoul's BMD defenses were.

By contrast, Japan as an island, could sustain itself, as Britain did during World War II, if its high-tech air defense and BMD systems were up to speed, without having to match China's overwhelming conventional land military power.

The most obvious but also most important lesson to be drawn from the contrasting BMD strategies of Japan and South Korea, therefore, is that even in the 21st century age of high-tech missile warfare geography still matters.

Also, however good a nation's BMD systems are, they will still have to be integrated into a coherent and realistic national security strategy. The military planners in Tokyo and Seoul understand this very well. It is revealing to see that they have come up with such different approaches.

Related Links
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Washington (UPI) Dec. 14, 2006
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