South Korean Ballistic Missile Ranges
South Korean Ballistic Missile Ranges
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Commentary / Asia 4 minutes

South Korean Ballistic Missile Ranges

Recently, the Japanese and South Korean press reported that Seoul and Washington were close to revising a bilateral agreement to permit an extension of South Korean ballistic missile ranges to 800km[i].  Republic of Korea (ROK) ballistic missiles are road mobile, so an 800km-range would give them the capability to strike anywhere in North Korea even if launchers retreated to the “Pusan perimeter.” However, any such U.S.-ROK agreement is very unlikely.

An 800km flight path from the Pusan area. Google Earth

ROK ballistic missiles include the Hyŏnmu-1 (180km-range), Hyŏnmu-2 (300km-range), and U.S.-made ATACMS Block 1 (560-kg warhead; 165-km-range) and Block 1A (160-kg warhead; 300-km range) road-mobile systems. The Hyŏnmu-1 is a ROK “reverse-engineered” version of the U.S. Nike-Hercules missile that was developed in the 1970s. In exchange for technical assistance, Seoul agreed to the bilateral MOU in 1979 that limited the range of ROK ballistic missiles to 180km with a 500kg warhead. The MOU was amended upon South Korea’s joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in March 2001. According to MTCR guidelines, South Korea’s ballistic missiles are limited to 300km with a 500kg payload.

Predictably, rumours of negotiations to revise the MOU surfaced back in January following comments by senior U.S. military officials, including Defense Secretary Gates, JCS Chairman Mullen, and USFK Commander Sharp, regarding North Korea’s ballistic missile threat. On 11 January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said North Korea possibly could strike the U.S. mainland with an ICBM within five years.[fn]Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger, “Gates Warns of North Korea Missile Threat to U.S.,” The New York Times, 11 January 2011.Hide Footnote The following day, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Gates saying North Korea’s missile development is “becoming a direct threat to the U.S.” Then on 13 January, General Walter Sharp appeared on PBS television in the U.S. and said North Korean missiles are a serious threat that must be deterred, but if deterrence fails, the U.S military has the capability to destroy North Korean missile bases.

While most analysts (including this one) do not believe North Korea will be able to deploy a reliable and militarily relevant ICBM within five years, such statements and media attention stimulate political pressures and debates within the ROK to recover “national missile sovereignty” ( 우리의 미사일 主權).[fn]연합뉴스, “탄도미사일 사거리 300㎞ 족쇄 풀릴까,” 조선일보, 2011.01.19; 김광수, “한ㆍ미, 미사일사거리 연장 협상 착수,” 한국일보,  2011.01.20.Hide Footnote South Koreans often cite the quantity and ranges of North Korean missiles to justify the development of greater missile capabilities to deter the North. In the 1990s, American officials were suspicious of ROK activities, and several rounds of contentious negotiations preceded Seoul’s entry into the MTCR.

“Anonymous [ROK] government sources” in January asserted that the ROK and U.S. had begun talks in late 2010 to revise the missile MOU so the ROK could extend ballistic missile ranges. However, U.S. sources told me no such negotiations were underway. In fact, they were surprised at the suggestion that somehow the U.S. would agree to carve out an exception for the ROK’s MTCR commitments. In late February, media reported that the Obama administration requested a meeting with Kim Tae-hyo, ROK presidential secretary for national security, to discuss the revision of the missile MOU.[fn]“S Korea’s Key Presidential Aide to Visit U.S. for Missile Talks,” Xinhua, 22 February 2011; “South Korea, U.S. to Discuss Ballistic Missile Rules,” Global Security Newswire, 22 February 2011.Hide Footnote  While many items must have been on the agenda during Kim’s U.S. visit in February, any request to extend ROK ballistic missile ranges must have been firmly rebuked by Obama administration officials.

The bilateral MOU remains classified and also addresses other issues such as the number of missiles and launchers, and how they should be employed. This last matter was probably the topic of bilateral discussion following the 23 November 2010 artillery attack against Yŏnp’yŏng Island when the U.S. and ROK militaries began discussions on revising the rules of engagement (ROE) to counter North Korean provocations.

During a crisis or war, the ROK would transfer most of its military forces to the Combined Forces Command (CFC), which would be under the command of a U.S. general. It is inconceivable for ROK ballistic missiles to be used against the North before operational control (OPCON) is transferred to the CFC. After the North’s provocations last year, Seoul and Washington began work on counter-provocation planning that included discussions of the conditions under which military forces would be part of the response. Combined counter-provocation planning has covered a wide range of issues, and must have addressed ROK ballistic missile forces. I suspect bilateral missile discussions most likely were part of the overall assessment and revision of the ROE.

Many ROK defense planners, conservative politicians and pundits periodically call for greater missile capabilities, but MTCR exceptions for the ROK are a non-starter for Washington despite claims in the ROK press that the U.S. has become sympathetic to the ROK position.[fn]“[Editorial] Missile Talks,” The Korea Herald, 20 January 2011; 연합뉴스, “탄도미사일 사거리 300㎞ 족쇄 풀릴까,” 조선일보, 2011.01.19.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, rumours surfaced in the press in mid-March once again. These reports fit the pattern in January, coming in the wake of another senior U.S. defense official’s commentary on North Korean missile capabilities. On 10 March, DIA Director Ronald Burgess told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee: “The North may now have several plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missile and aircraft as well as by unconventional means.”[fn]Ronald L. Burgess, “World Wide Threat Assessment: Statement before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate,” 10 March 2011.Hide Footnote

Two days later, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported Seoul and Washington were “close to reaching an agreement to extend the range of ROK ballistic missiles to 800km.” This report is another rumour and fallacy, but why do they recur?

These rumours are mainly directed at two audiences: North and South Korean. First, some ROK politicians and some in the defense establishment would like to signal to its domestic audience that Seoul is responding to Pyongyang’s missile threat by developing a robust counter-strike missile force. Second, many in the ROK defense establishment believe that ambiguity and rumours about South Korean capabilities enhance deterrence against the North. While the political motivations regarding the domestic audience are understandable, any residual deterrent effect is absurd.

The U.S. will not accept a South Korean MTCR exception that subsequently would undermine its global non-proliferation and security interests. Washington will fulfill its alliance commitments and maintain robust extended deterrence without ROK missiles beyond MTCR guidelines. Pyongyang knows this, and everyone knows Pyongyang knows this—well, except for a few anonymous ROK government officials who occasionally leak rumours to the press. Instead of ineffective rumours, a clear declaratory policy is much better in any deterrent posture against the North.

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