When South Korea and the United States amended their missile guidelines last month after years of tough negotiations, China and other countries expressed some concerns about the revisions, the first change in the guidelines in more than a decade. Shedding some light on the reasons for the decision might help assuage them.
Under a 2001 accord with Washington, Seoul agreed not to deploy ballistic missiles having a range of more than 300 km or a payload of more than 500 kg. Under the new guidelines, South Korea can now possess ballistic missiles with a range up to 800 kilometers with a higher maximum payload of 500 kilograms. The payloads can be even heavier for missiles with shorter ranges. The agreement also permits the ROK to operate drone aircraft having a range of 300 km with payloads up to 2,500 kilograms as well as shorter-range UAVs with no restrictions on their payloads.
South Korean officials offered several reasons for the revised guidelines. The most common was the need “to cope with the North’s nuclear weapons and missile threats” by bolstering the ROK deterrent and, in a war, rapidly neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear and conventional strike capabilities.
It is true that the ROK already has long-range cruise missiles like the Hyunmoo-3, but, like manned aircraft, these fly more slowly and at a lower altitude than ballistic missiles, making them easier to shoot down. The ROK’s ballistic missiles can be more effective at destroying the DPRK’s mobile or underground missiles that are about to be launched. The ROK needs the larger and heavier reconnaissance and combat UAVs for the same reason—to remain aloft above North Korea in a battle and use its own missiles against any fleeting North Korean targets as well as guide longer-range ROK missiles towards them.
The U.S. and ROK forces in South Korea are deploying GPS-guided artillery shells, Patriot PAC-3 air defense missiles, and ATACMS surface-to-surface missiles, but these systems cannot be used to strike deep inside North Korea and, being located near the intra-Korean border, are themselves vulnerable to DPRK attacks. With their new ranges, the South Korean ballistic missiles under developments could hit even targets in North Korea’s Hamgyong Province while being stationed in much safer places in southern South Korea, such as on Jeju Island. Their reduced vulnerability increases crisis stability since the ROK command would feel less of an urgent need to use them before losing them to a DPRK attack.
International status and domestic political considerations also may have influenced ROK decision-making. Although the ROK possesses superior conventional forces to the DPRK, until now the ROK had nothing to match North Korea’s long-range missiles, which by its calculations can hit all of South Korean territory as well as parts of Japan. China, Russia, and many other countries also have ballistic missiles with a range of at least 800km and are developing long-range cruise missiles and armed drones. The ROK has explicitly declined to follow the paths of North Korea, China, Russia, and the United States and develop its own nuclear weapons.
South Korea’s ruling conservative party also wanted the agreement to trumpet its nationalist credentials in standing up to the United States. Many South Koreans want the ROK to acquire nuclear weapons or at least found the guidelines grating since they denied the ROK capabilities that North Korea and other countries enjoyed. President Lee personally appealed to President Obama on several occasions to relax the restrictions. All three of the major ROK presidential candidates endorsed the revised guidelines, which were a popular move.
U.S. officials claim to support the revised guidelines as “a prudent, proportional and specific response” to the DPRK’s threats and provocations. The increased ROK capabilities are in line with the administration’s Asian Pivot of bolstering local capabilities and with the planned transition to South Korean leadership of the joint U.S.-ROK wartime operation control (OPCON) arrangements in a few years.
Conversely, openly resisting the revisions would have risked reviving latent anti-Americanism in South Korea and making the ROK-U.S. alliance seem more of a hindrance than a help to South Korea’s security. Even so, media leaks made evident that the negotiations over the revisions were contentious.
While reluctantly accepting some South Korean demands, U.S. negotiators did insist on provisions that limited the potential threat to China or other countries. South Korea originally wanted a 1,000 km range allowance but U.S. negotiators stuck firmly to the 800km limit, which keeps the ballistic missiles from reaching Beijing or Tokyo if fully loaded to 500km. The U.S. negotiators also resisted ROK demands for a solid fuel-powered space vehicle since the rocket could provide the basis for an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Obama administration continues to oppose allowing the ROK to possess sensitive technologies that could be used to manufacture fissile materials.
U.S. and ROK negotiators continue to discuss how to apply the guidelines as well as other steps to bolster their defenses in the face of North Korea’s missile buildup, nuclear weapons tests, and other provocations.
Of course, China could do its part to limiting the negative regional repercussions of the ROK move by more strongly discouraging North Korea from further testing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.