According to the author, the main outcome of the South Korean president’s visit to the United States in May was not agreements on economic or medical cooperation, but the lifting of ballistic missile range restrictions on the ROK.
Indeed, actions aimed at limiting South Korea’s military capabilities by the United States have a long and specific history, not entirely clear to those who are used to perceiving Seoul as an obedient puppet of Washington.
To begin with, even Lee Seung-Man was never an American puppet, so much so that during the Korean War he actively thwarted the Americans by obstructing an armistice and insisting that the war be fought to the bitter end. As a result, on his orders, the South Korean representative failed to put his signature on the ceasefire agreement. To avoid a situation in which Lee would start a second Korean War in violation of American policy, thereby forcing Washington to fight by his side, a series of South Korean-US defense agreements effectively put the ROK army under American control. An echo of this is the long process of handing over operational command of the joint military forces to the Korean party, which has been proceeding with considerable difficulty.
During the Park Chung-hee presidency, the United States killed South Korea’s own nuclear weapons program, which, it should be noted, Seoul began before Pyongyang did. The motives were very similar, and up until the end of the military dictatorships, the need to coordinate their actions with the United States was more of a deterrent for South Korean hawks.
The actual agreement on missile restrictions was signed on May 22, 1979, at the end of the Park administration: Seoul was given access to US missile technology, but agreed to limit the range of missiles to 180 kilometers and payloads to 500 kg.
On January 17, 2001, South Korea’s missile range was extended to 300 km in exchange for Seoul joining the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
On October 7, 2012, South Korea and the United States extended the maximum range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles to 800 km, a distance long enough to reach all of North Korea. That agreement also allowed Seoul to load its missiles with warheads heavier than 500 kg, but on the condition that the range of the missiles is proportionally reduced. The decision was clearly influenced by the North’s rocket successes (the failed launch of the satellite in April 2012 and then a successful one in December).
Under Moon Jae-in and Trump (something not really worth talking about anymore), the ROK started cranking out new benefits for itself: On November 7, 2017, the parties agreed to completely lift the limit on missile payloads, in 2017 the limit on the weight of possible warheads was completely lifted, and in July 2020 Seoul received approval to develop solid-fuel missiles.
Now that the “last seal has been broken” and the very concept of restrictions has been abolished, South Korea can develop and possess any type of missile, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with ranges of over 5,500 kilometers and advanced submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers. Just like the DPRK, for example, given that the existing Hyeonmu-4 missile has a payload of two tons.
Of course, the question of final cancellation was a matter of time. Another thing is whether the South has enough local engineering capabilities, as missiles have to be built and tested somewhere. They will make their own ICBM in a year or two at best. In addition, the process of “military independence from the United States” will finally be completed at least after the change of the organizational structure of the Unified Command on the Korean Peninsula, as a result of which the operational control of the Korean armed forces in wartime will finally shift to the South Korean generals.
Experts and media in the ROK ecstatically write that the lifting of restrictions will strengthen Seoul’s defense capabilities, while progress in missile technology will have a positive impact on the development of the South’s aerospace industry, including satellite launches for scientific purposes, and enable South Korea to compete with other countries in the civilian aerospace industry on an equal footing. It also “reflects how the Biden administration lays importance on the South Korea-US alliance, as well as the trust in our country based on our national capacity, status and as a model nation for international nonproliferation”.
According to an anonymous senior Defense Department official, “Long-range missiles will help increase our defense power and diplomatic leverage”. “Longer ranges mean that we can launch missiles from safer locations in the rear, which will give us greater strategic flexibility and enable us to better prepare for threats from North Korea and other [countries]”.
But what exactly are those “neighboring powers” or “other countries”? Who will South Korea’s longer-range and more powerful missiles be aimed against? The North is building its ICBMs not so much against the South as against the continental US, where they have to make an effort to reach. The 800-km range generally allows South Korean missiles to strike most of DPRK territory, and under the assumption that the South’s military potential is primarily directed against the North, this limitation was understandable and logical.
In addition, the missile issue should be taken in conjunction with a number of promising defense projects of South Korea. First and foremost is the creation of its own fighter (the KFX project) and its own light aircraft carrier. Each of these types of weapons has traditionally been regarded as means not to restrain the enemy, but to attack or preventively strike the enemy. That is why Korea’s neighbors have to wonder: who is it going to war against with these kinds of weapons?
It is no coincidence that even some South Korean experts view this decision as part of the US strategy to counter China. Beijing will certainly react harshly to the appearance of US intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs in South Korea, but what if these missiles were actually South Korean?
The US is working on air defense systems in the Asia-Pacific region to keep China in check. To this end, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019, prompting strong opposition from Beijing and Moscow.
Beijing and Seoul are about 950 kilometers apart, and South Korea’s intermediate-range missiles with a range of 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers can hit most strategic targets on Chinese territory.
And add to this the fact that the level of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea is growing, and not only conservative but also notionally neutral English-language media constantly publish materials aimed at making audiences feel nasty, angry and disgusted not even at the Chinese government, but at the Chinese in general. A popular history show on TV could be shut down because, you see, it contains hidden advertising for China and distorts history in its favor. At this rate, in 5-10 years, the intensity of anti-Chinese propaganda will probably be on par with anti-Japanese propaganda.
Of course, it is not always possible to determine to what extent such a trend comes from below rather than from above, but the combination of such trends can lead to quite interesting conclusions, especially if one recalls that even before the Korean War, South Korean nationalists had quite a plan to expand Korean territories at the expense of Manchuria as ancestral Korean lands.
For those who do not like the idea of war with China, you can imagine another understandable explanation. Throughout his presidential term, President Moon, ever fearful of a military coup, has on the one hand tried to keep the army under control, and on the other, actively lavished on the military elite, including increased military spending, at the rate which Conservatives might well envy. There is an assumption that this is being done so that corrupt people in the army could steal and thank the president for it, but there is one point the author would like to address: how much will the lifting of the missile restrictions affect the issue of regional security?
First, it is unlikely to provoke a favorable reaction from North Korea. The South Korean media, describing the outcome of Moon’s visit, stressed that the parties agreed not to nullify the Singapore Declaration, but words are words, while actions aimed at enhancing the South’s military capabilities are a different matter entirely.
Russian military expert Valentin Voloshchak also believes that “the lack of visible progress in relations between the ROK and DPRK, the change of administration in the US and the crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic may push the North Korean leadership to tough measures and cause escalation of tension on the peninsula. Under these circumstances, the case of the lifting of ROK-US bilateral restrictions on the development of missile weapons by Seoul will be one of the arguments to justify Pyongyang’s radical course.”
Therefore, the question is to what extent this decision will mean for the DPRK the crossing of the “red line”. As can be seen, despite widespread expert statements that Moon’s visit to the United States was supposed to take place amid North Korean provocations, at least in the form of short-range missile launches, this did not happen. But the step under consideration is able to cause a backlash.
Second, lifting the restrictions on missile range could cause China to retaliate. The reader may recall how harshly China reacted to the deployment of the US missile defense system in Korea. This event changes regional security structures just as much as it changes regional security structures and is capable of triggering a vicious cycle of a new regional arms race. After all, although Moon tried to talk about balancing the United States and China during his visit, it is all too clear where Seoul is really leaning, and the economic outcome of the visit can be seen as an opportunity for South Korean businessmen to be compensated for the future problems that China will give South Korea for the final choice of the American side.
Meanwhile, the ROK media reports on the consequences of the missile action with a mixture of complacency and arrogance. Asked if there was any response from China after the announcement, Defense Ministry spokesman Pu Seung Chang said that Beijing had not filed any complaints about the decision. And in general, “I don’t think it’s an issue that we should make a decision on after taking the effect on neighboring countries into consideration”. According to the Korea Herald, “The fact that China is within the range of South Korea’s missiles would certainly worry Beijing, although it is highly unlikely that Seoul would ever strike Beijing. In this light, lifting restrictions on missile development could damage Seoul’s relationship with Beijing.”
Even the generally centrist Korea Times writes that the missile move “will inevitably trigger a backlash from North Korea and China. Pyongyang has shown hysterical responses to the South’s buildup of conventional weapons. Beijing will regard the latest agreement between Seoul and Washington as a thinly veiled threat to its security based on the US administration’s careful calculations. Given what China and North Korea have done in this part of the world, however, Friday’s decision is just the beginning of striking a regional balance. Securing a deterrent is the self-defense strategy of any sovereign country. Pyongyang must return to dialogue with Seoul and Washington to discuss denuclearization and arms reduction issues. Beijing ought to encourage its communist ally to do so”.
The more conservative Korea Herald is more outspoken in its jubilation though: “While South Korea’s hands and feet were tied, North Korea developed ICBMs that could hit the American mainland. With the restrictions lifted, South Korea’s military position is expected to become much stronger. The government ought to go all out to narrow the missile technology gap with North Korea.” Followed by: “Pyongyang insists that it has developed nuclear weapons and missiles for self-defense and deterrence, but that is not true. It stubbornly ignores sanctions from the international community and keeps upgrading its missiles. China protects the North. Pyongyang and Beijing have no right to take issue with the termination of the guidelines and with South Korea’s missile development.”
Of course, Seoul will “have to make diplomatic efforts to persuade neighboring countries that they are needed for the defense of the nation and for civilian research on space. It needs to use wise strategies to accumulate technology without upsetting its neighbors excessively.”
But, in the author’s opinion, it makes sense to express concern on this issue not only to China, but also to Russia. Decisions made at the end of Moon’s presidency may have more far-reaching political implications. The current president is busy making his own nest, but there is a rather interesting question as to who, in terms of the length of the beak, will succeed him. That is why the author anxiously awaits the consequences of this step, which may not necessarily be instantaneous.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.