U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines are still unrevised, with negotiations ongoing since January last year. According to the January 2001 missile guidelines, South Korea can only have missiles that weigh less than 500 kg and have a range of less than 300 km.
Because it is tied down by these missile guidelines, South Korea’s capabilities are nowhere near that of North Korea’s long-range missiles, which can travel 6,700km, and has around 1,000 ballistic missiles that can fly clear across the Peninsula. Moreover, many advanced countries are accelerating their development of ICBMS.
South Korea began developing its own ballistic missiles in the 1970s, as North Korea’s provocations intensified and President Nixon reduced the US Armed Forces presence in Korea. In 1978, South Korea successfully tested a solid-fuel missile called ‘polar bear’, but shortly after that the U.S. put a break on South Korea’s missile development. The two sides agreed guidelines for missile use, limiting the missile range to 180km.This limitation stayed in force until the guidelines were revised in 2001.
While South Korea was restricted, North Korea developed surface-to-air missiles able to fly 1,200km in 1980, the Taepodong-1 in 1998, and tested a long-range missile that can travel up to 6,7000km in 2009.
China has already stationed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with a range of about 12,000km, and Japan has the ability to place a rocket into orbit that is essentially an ICBM. The reality is that South Korea’s missile capabilities are nowhere near North Korea’s in the 1980s.
There are no international rules in existence that restrict missile range. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) only controls illegal trade in missiles and components but does not control missile development itself. South Korea joined the MTCR when it was revising its missile guidelines in 2001.
The 2001 missile guidelines are as follows: First, South Korea is only allowed to build ballistic missiles ranging 300km and weighing 500kg. Second, the weight of cruise missiles is unlimited if the distance is within 300km. Or, if the missile weighs less than 500kg then the distance is unlimited. Third, a civilian space launch vehicle cannot use a solid fuel or be for military use. South Korea has kept to the guidelines for the past ten years, but it is unfair for a steadfast ally of the U.S.
Times have changed. North Korea has developed and tested Scud-B (330km)/C (500km), Rodong (1,3000km), Taepodong-1 (2,000km), and Musudan (2,500km). It is currently conducting tests of the Taepodong-2, which can go about 6,7000km. South Korea holds the Hyunmu, Nike, and ATACMS, none of which can go beyond 300km. There is a huge gap in missile technology on the Peninsula, to the point where the level is dangerous enough to cause instability.
South Korea’s cruise missiles have a range of 1,500km and can strike all throughout North Korea, but its limits make it slow and vulnerable to interception. Therefore, if South Korea wants to establish a more effective deterrent to North Korea’s ballistic missiles, it needs to increase the range and weight of its own ballistic missiles and dramatically improve its unmanned vehicles and cruise missiles.
The U.S. opposes an extension of South Korea’s missile range limitations for the following reasons: first, an extension of South Korea’s missile range has repercussions in terms of missile proliferation. Second, 550km is enough to strike North Korea. Third, if South Korea extends its range, it would make China and Japan think twice, leading to instability in Northeast Asia. These seem to be reasonable arguments, but they are not.
There are international norms to prevent missile proliferation, so what a country does within that norm is its own choice. Imposing such tight restrictions only on South Korea is reverse discrimination within an alliance. Also, with the limitation to a distance of 550km, it is only possible to strike North Korea if the missile is placed on the border, where it is exposed to North Korean attack.
To directly strike North Korea from a safe distance, a missile needs to be capable of traveling at least 800km. Moreover, China and Japan already own ICBM missiles. How would South Korea’s extension of missile range to 800km affect China and Japan? South Korea’s missile range extension will not cause instability between China, Japan and North Korea.
The U.S. disapproves of an extension of the range of South Korea’s missiles, but is very anxious to sell stealth fighters and other expensive advanced weapon systems. The F-35 cost 150 billion won. Not only is the F-35 expensive, but it also requires additional costs for fuel, pilot training, aircraft mount missile costs, and maintenance costs. It cannot be used without the help of the U.S. in target setting by satellite and midair command control. The cost of a few stealth fighters is enough money to build an entire missile defense system that could strike throughout North Korea.
The war in Afghanistan has shown that robots and UAVs will play a very important role in the future of combat. The U.S. has successfully controlled operations during war in Afghanistan. As the number of deployed military decreases, the development of unmanned vehicles will need to be actively pursued.
Extending South Korea’s missile ranges can deter North Korea’s provocations and guarantee stability on the Peninsula. By getting missiles that can strike North Korea’s main missile facilities and developing unmanned vehicles, South Korea can achieve self-reliant defense.
The U.S.’s should not continue its hegemonic intervention in South Korea’s independent missile development. It is not appropriate to entwine an alliance with a promise made 11 years ago on the basis of a context from 33 years ago. There needs to be a revision in the current missile guidelines, which do not reflect current technology or the reality of South Korea’s security situation. South Korea’s military capabilities are far behind those of North Korea in terms of nuclear weapons, missiles and other asymmetric threats.