How U.S. Restrictions Endanger Korea

Limits on Seoul's ballistic missile capabilities leave it less able to deter its neighbors, forcing Washington to take a bigger role.

North Korea recognizes no limit on either the range or payload of its missiles. At the same time, the United States restricts the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles. Washington should stop weakening the Republic of Korea’s ability to defend itself.

The ROK has one of the world’s largest economies; South Korean businesses are active around the globe. Seoul is building a blue-water navy and has begun participating in international peacekeeping missions. Yet the country remains a security dependent of America.

Only in early October did Washington agree to adjust the treaty, signed in 1979 and amended in 2001, restricting South Korean missiles to a range of about 186 miles and a payload of 1,100 pounds. The ROK joined the Missile Technology Control Regime in exchange for American technical assistance.

These limits stood even as the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea developed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Under the new accord Seoul still is barred from deploying any missiles with a range longer than roughly five hundred miles. The payload restriction on missiles also remains, though the limit was raised for drones. At least the South Koreans will be able to hit targets anywhere in the North.

Chun Yung-woo, the ROK government’s national-security adviser, explained: “The most important purpose of revising the missile guideline lies in deterring armed provocations by North Korea.” The Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Warren, made a similar point: the “new missile guidelines are designed to improve their ability to deter and defend against DPRK ballistic missiles.” However, the South Koreans still won’t be able to defend themselves from more distant threats or employ more destructive warheads. The policy is bizarre in the extreme.

Washington has kept the ROK dependent for decades. South Korea was created by U.S. occupation authorities after World War II and gained formal independence only under American control. Washington did not trust the South’s dictatorial President Syngman Rhee and therefore refused to provide his forces with heavy weapons.

After the North Korean invasion in 1950, U.S. forces intervened and ran the war effort. Washington decided to end the conflict inconclusively, over Rhee’s objections, but retained formal control over the ROK military through the Combined Forces Command. (The latter was supposed to go to Seoul this year, but the transfer was delayed to 2015.) Later Washington forced ROK dictator Park Chung-hee, whose daughter is running for president this year, to end his nuclear-weapons program.

America’s restrictions on South Korea might have made sense when Seoul had no choice but to rely on the United States. During the 1950s, the ROK was desperately poor and politically unstable. The North was backed by both China and the Soviet Union. The South still needed Washington’s aid and could not be trusted to use its power responsibly.

But that world disappeared long ago. For some time, Seoul has lobbied to revise the missile treaty. Argued President Lee Myung-bak earlier in March: “The 300km [range] was set many years ago on the assumption fighting would happen around the demilitarized zone.” Today, however, he observed that his nation faced “new needs in its defense environment.” His government proposed to expand the missile range to one thousand kilometers and raise the payload to more than a ton, while the Pentagon opposed any increase—hence the recent compromise.

Washington should have dropped all restrictions. There is no good reason for the United States to limit the South’s ability to defend itself.

The most curious objection to relaxing the standard is that doing so will stoke an inter-Korean arms race. However, Pyongyang already is racing, with a nuclear-weapons program, an intercontinental-missiles initiative, extensive and entrenched artillery targeted on Seoul, and an oversize military spring-loaded on the border. Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group warned that “anyone who thinks the North won’t respond is either naive or foolish,” but North Korea will always find a pretext for its aggressive behavior. The DPRK is more likely to respect strength in the South.

Another concern is that Seoul might use its financial wherewithal to build a superior military and attempt to liberate North Korea. Indeed, one reason Washington refused to arm the ROK before the Korean War was Syngman Rhee’s threats to march north. However, the DPRK’s ability to strike the South Korean capital is a significant deterrent, and there is no political support in the South for a reckless policy that would sacrifice the future.

Seoul is in the position of a chess player who merely needs to avoid a blunder and play out a won game to collect the point.

The third complaint is that other nations oppose any change. Shin Won-shik, a South Korean defense official, explained that the new limit was intended to avoid “unnecessary misunderstanding and friction with neighboring countries.”

In particular, Beijing opposes the ROK building missiles that might reach Chinese territory. However, potential aggressors should not be allowed to insist that their potential victims remain disarmed. Although Chinese military action against the South is highly unlikely, the best way to prevent such a contingency is to ensure that Seoul has deterrent capability against even the People’s Republic of China. That would help constrain Beijing’s ambitions without America’s direct involvement.