The Skeptics

Free the South Koreans!

Washington’s security guarantees are obviously expensive for Americans. Military commitments also come at a sometimes-high price for U.S. allies. One of the most important costs is restricting their defense options. For instance, the bilateral missile agreement between Washington and South Korea limits Seoul’s missile development. The U.S. should set the Republic of Korea free.

Although Washington and the ROK are allies, the relationship effectively runs only one way, with Washington defending a dependent South. Just as the U.S. used its disproportionate influence to quash South Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the former has limited Seoul’s missile options.

In 1979, the two countries signed an accord, amended in 2001, which currently restricts ROK missiles to a range of 300 kilometers and a payload of 500 kilograms. The U.S. provided technical support while South Korea agreed to join the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Nearly two years ago the South proposed revisiting the missile agreement. The ROK wants to increase the allowable range to 1000 kilometers, covering all of North Korea, and raise the allowable payload to more than a ton. Seoul is capable of doing much more. An official at South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development stated: “We have secured enough technologies to develop advanced longer-range missiles at any time.”

Despite hopeful comments from South Korean officials, the Obama administration proved reluctant to open the issue, even after North Korea tested its long-range Daepodong Two missiles. Talks finally began in January, but the Pentagon, as well as the U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, reportedly opposes any change.

It is time to drop U.S. restrictions on Seoul’s missile capabilities. The world of 1979 is long gone.

Three decades ago Washington could reasonably see itself as the grand puppeteer of Northeast Asia, trading defense promises for restrictions on its dependent allies, most notably the ROK and Japan. Today it makes no sense for the U.S. to guarantee the security of wealthy industrialized states while restricting their ability to defend themselves.

The South needs to deter the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which demonstrates no inhibitions when it comes to arming itself. Pyongyang has deployed missiles with ranges of up to 3,000 or 4,000 kilometers and is working on longer-range weapons. Even more ominously, the DPRK has a nuclear program. Cheon Seong-whun, with the Korea Institute for National Unification, reasonably argued that “we should have capabilities on par with North Korea’s to enhance our deterrence capabilities.” 

In fact, the ROK is preparing to deploy the Cheonryong ship-to-ground cruise missile. It will be launched from Aegis ships and eventually from submarines. With a range of more than 500 km, the Cheonryong will allow South Korea to strike North Korean coastal missile bases or artillery batteries outside of the range of North Korean Silkworm ground-to-ship missiles. Ironically, the missile treaty does not restrict cruise missiles.

However, while these weapons offer greater flexibility, they are less deadly than ballistic missiles. Opined one ADD official: “The long-range cruise missile is a key option to deter a North Korean provocation, but a cruise missile, in general, is vulnerable to being intercepted by the enemy due to its low speed, and it is less powerful than a ballistic missile because of the light payload.”

Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior has also sparked South Korean plans for a more general military build-up. For instance, Seoul is increasing the number of marines, in part to better protect the island (and its neighbors) near the disputed Yellow Sea boundary shelled by the North last November. With the South Korean government committed to doing more, this would be a particularly good time to eliminate the bilateral missile restrictions.

The missile treaty was imposed in a far different time when the South remained relatively poor and dependent on America. The purpose was to avoid provoking China, Japan, and Russia, but the ROK is not going to attack any of these nations. Observed Cheon: “we can persuade them given that they do have their own long-range missiles and we are not making any provocations or posing any threats to them.”

Indeed, China, Japan, and Russia are far more concerned with each other’s armaments than those of South Korea. Most important, there’s no evidence that China, whose military growth is causing the greatest regional disquiet, would limit its ambitions if Seoul continued to eschew bigger missiles with longer ranges.

In any case, there’s a more fundamental point. Seoul should develop a means to threaten any potential aggressor, especially its large neighbors. As the North Korean threat faded, ROK residents said they wanted American forces to stick around to protect them from a remilitarized Japan. With the prospect of Tokyo repeating World War II obviously a paranoid fantasy, China has become the next possible enemy du jour.