North Korea recognizes no limit on either the range or payload of its missiles. The US restricts the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles. Washington should stop weakening the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) defense.
The ROK has one of the world’s largest economies, but remains a security dependent of the US. Only two months ago, Washington agreed to adjust the treaty restricting South Korean missiles to a range of about 300km and a payload of 500kg. 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 is still barred from deploying any missiles with a range longer than roughly 800km. The payload restriction on missiles also remains, though the limit was raised for drones. At least South Korea will be able to hit targets anywhere in North Korea.
Chun Yung-woo, the ROK government’s national security adviser, said: “The most important purpose of revising the missile guideline lies in deterring armed provocations by North Korea.” 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.”
South Koreans will still not be able to defend themselves from more distant threats or employ more destructive warheads.
Washington has kept the ROK dependent for decades. The US’ restrictions on South Korea might have made sense when a desperately poor South Korea had no choice but to rely on the US. However, that world disappeared long ago.
For some time Seoul has lobbied to revise the missile treaty. Hence the recent compromise. However, Washington should have dropped all restrictions. There is no good reason for the US to limit South Korea’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 is already racing, with a nuclear weapons program, intercontinental missiles initiative, extensive artillery targeted on Seoul and an oversize military spring-loaded on the border.
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group warned: “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.
Another concern is that Seoul might build a superior military and attempt to liberate North Korea. Indeed, one reason Washington refused to arm the ROK before the Korean War was then-South Korean president Syngman Rhee’s threats to march north. However, North Korea’s ability to strike the South Korean capital is a significant deterrent, and there is no political support in South Korea for a reckless policy that would risk the future.
The third complaint is that other nations oppose any change.
A South Korean defense official, Shin Won-shik, explained that the new limit was intended to avoid “unnecessary misunderstanding and friction with neighboring countries.”
In particular, Beijing opposes the ROK building missiles which might reach Chinese territory. Potential aggressors should not be allowed to insist that their potential victims remain disarmed. Although Chinese military action against South Korea is highly unlikely, the best way to eliminate this threat is to ensure that Seoul has deterrent capability against even the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Moreover, China has done nothing, or at least nothing effective, to constrain North Korea’s development of missiles or nuclear weapons. So the US is under no obligation to restrict its ally. If Beijing wants to keep the ROK disarmed, then the former should offer something in return — such as taking effective action against North Korea’s weapons development.
If the PRC is bothered by the prospect of a better-armed South Korea, the former should do more to prevent a better-armed North Korea.
Finally, dropping the limit would help end Seoul’s defense dependence on the US. Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball complained that the ROK did not need longer-range missiles because “these targets in the North can already also be destroyed by the United States.”
Why should the US be expected to do South Korea’s job? The Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and ROK is archaic.
South Korea has raced past North Korea: The former has twice the population, about 40 times the GDP and a vast technological edge. The ROK no longer needs defense welfare from the US, especially since the US is effectively bankrupt.
Lifting missile restrictions should be merely the first step. The US’ nearly 30,000 troops should come home. It is time for South Koreans, not Americans, to pay for the South’s defense.
Washington remains locked in a 1950s mindset in Asia. Today the US defends the ROK while limiting the latter’s ability to defend itself. US policymakers should set South Korea free.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.