By Josh Smith
SEOUL: South Korea on Wednesday test-fired a long-range surface-to-air missile, Yonhap news agency reported, a month after North Korea tested a record number of increasingly powerful missiles potentially capable of evading defences in the South.
An L-SAM was successfully launched from a testing site in Taean, 150 km (90 miles) southwest of the capital Seoul, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed sources. The Ministry of Defence declined to confirm the report.
International tension has been rising over a recent series of North Korean ballistic missile tests. January was a record month for such tests, with at least seven launches, including a new type of "hypersonic missile" able to manoeuvre at high speed, making it potentially difficult to intercept.
The L-SAM is a "cutting-edge indigenous weapon system" currently under development to defend against missiles or other high-flying threats, according to South Korea's Agency for Defence Development.
Plans call for it to target incoming missiles at altitudes of around 50-60 kilometres (30-37 miles), and it is due to become operational by 2026. Yonhap said Wednesday's test raised the prospect that its deployment could be accelerated.
The L-SAM is designed to be part of a "layered defence network" that already includes U.S.-made Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles and locally produced Cheongung II KM-SAM medium-range weapons, capable of intercepting targets at varying altitudes and ranges.
South Korea also hosts U.S. military THAAD anti-missile batteries. The leading conservative candidate in next month's presidential election has vowed to purchase a THAAD interceptor battery to deploy nearer to Seoul, even if it brings retaliation from China, which has complained that the equipment's powerful radar could penetrate its territory.
Seoul plans to produce a $2.6 billion artillery interception system, similar to Israel's "Iron Dome", designed to protect against North Korea's arsenal of long-range guns and rockets.
Seoul is looking as well into exporting some of its latest missile interceptors. It inked its largest defence sale ever in January with the export of KM-SAM to the United Arab Emirates in a deal valued at around $3.5 billion.