Following a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on May 21, it was announced that the United States had agreed to lift restrictions imposed on South Korea’s development of ballistic missiles. These restrictions had been gradually relaxed since 2001 to allow South Korea to field longer ranged ground-based missiles with heavier warheads. The lifting of restrictions entirely opens up the possibility of a much more ambitious missile program capable of launching precision strikes across Northeast Asia – and possibly much farther.
North Korea responded on May 31 by condemning the relaxation of restrictions, with the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stating: “It is an apparently deliberate and hostile act that the U.S. lifted the firing range limit, not content with the removal of the warhead weight limit through the approval of several revised ‘missile guidelines.’ The termination of the ‘missile guidelines’ clearly shows who is behind the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula.”
The article warned that this could allow South Korea to develop hypersonic, submarine launched, and even intercontinental ranged ballistic missiles in a short period, claiming that Washington was seeking to intensify the arms race on the Korean Peninsula by giving Seoul the green light to move ahead with its missile program. Such a possibility was described as “disturbing.” The North Korean state media outlet further claimed that the move was a sign of double standards regarding which of the Koreas is permitted to develop ballistic missile capabilities, stating: “The U.S., doggedly branding the measures taken by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the official name of North Korea] for self-defense as violations of U.N. ‘resolution,’ grants its allies unlimited rights to missile development. It is engrossed in confrontation despite its lip-service to dialogue. The termination step is a stark reminder of the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its shameful double-dealing.”
While an unrestricted South Korean ballistic missile program may initially appear to threaten the North, with which Seoul and Washington have been technically at war for over 70 years, assessing the full implications of a less restricted South Korea missile program indicates it may in fact strengthen Pyongyang’s position for multiple reasons.
First, the existing range restrictions for South Korean missiles already allow it to field munitions that can strike anywhere on the Korean Peninsula with warheads of any size – with its latest missiles deploying exceptionally large two ton warheads. This means a lifting of restrictions may not actually have any notable impact on the South’s ability to strike the North, in contrast to the previous loosening of restrictions in 2012 and 2017. The former amendment to restrictions allowed South Korea to field missiles with a range of up to 800 km, which was enough to comfortably cover all of North Korea from almost any launching point the South, while the latter removed all restrictions on warhead weight. Any missile designs that are actually affected by the recent abolition of restrictions will thus likely be focused on striking targets beyond the Korean Peninsula – a capability that will not necessarily harm Pyongyang’s interests.
The lifting of missile restrictions notably comes as part of a growing trend toward greater autonomy for South Korea’s armed forces, with Seoul expected to gain wartime operational command over its military in 2022, when a decades-long arrangement that placed its assets under U.S. wartime command comes to an end. This trend could well lead to a reduced dependence on Washington for protection, and in turn provide Seoul with greater room to conduct policy independently. This has particularly significant implications for its relations with China and North Korea.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, but Seoul has come under increasing U.S. pressure to take a hard line against Beijing. The U.S. deployment of THAAD air defenses to South Korea from 2016, and the serious harm this did to diplomatic and economic ties between Seoul and Beijing, provides an example of precisely the kind of situation South Korea hopes to avoid as China-U.S. relations worsen – and greater military independence could better allow it to stay out of a similar predicament in the future.
Furthermore, with South Korea’s ability to improve ties with the North effectively restricted by the U.S., despite the Moon administration having had a strong popular mandate for inter-Korean rapprochement, greater independence from Washington in defense could well facilitate more independence in this area of policymaking as well. South Korea is already considered by some assessments to be one of the world’s five or six most capable military powers, and with command of its own armed forces, an increasingly self-reliant defense sector, and a long-range ballistic missile deterrent the argument that it need depend on U.S. protection would be weakened – thus potentially loosening Washington’s leverage over policy.
Beyond the potential effects the removal of ballistic missile restrictions could have on Seoul’s strategic position, it could also go a long way toward effectively legitimizing North Korea’s own ballistic missile program. Western-led efforts to arbitrarily label North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles as “provocative” have often struggled to stand up to scrutiny, with very similar missile tests in India, Pakistan, Israel, and the West itself treated as normal and legitimate and receiving entirely different coverage. The only outstanding difference between North Korea’s missile program, and those of the three other nuclear weapons states not sanctioned by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, is that Pyongyang’s program is aimed at restricting the military freedom of action of Western states through deterrence. The others, by contrast, are all aimed at deterring non-Western neighboring states in South Asia and the Middle East, and are therefore considered acceptable in the Western-dominated discourse on the issue.
A powerful South Korean missile arsenal would emphasize these double standards with an example much closer to home for Pyongyang, and effectively underline that claims a North Korean missile deterrent is provocative and unacceptable are arbitrary – since the South would be doing precisely the same. A South Korean long ranged missile program could make that of the North look much more legitimate – and do so without significantly harming North Korean security.
While Pyongyang will protest the possibility of an expanded South Korean ballistic missile deterrent, and will seek to use Washington’s green light to an expansion of Seoul’s arsenal and capabilities to highlight the double standards under which its own arsenal has been condemned, in the medium term North Korea’s position is likely to only be strengthened. The extent to which Seoul may seek to increasingly assert its independence from Washington as the country takes greater responsibility for its own defense, as trade with China becomes increasingly central to its economic interests, and as the economic benefits of potential rapprochement with Pyongyang remain alluring, is yet to be seen.