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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Missile Update

by | November 20th, 2012 | 07:00 am

Over the summer, we reviewed South Korea’s missile and missile defense ambitions. On October 7, the US and South Korea announced an expected agreement on the range and payload of short- and medium-range missiles. A 2001 agreement between the two countries—struck when South Korea entered the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)–limited the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles to 300 kilometers (186 miles) and a payload of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).

Under the new deal, South Korea can extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 800 kilometers (497 miles). The maximum payload for the maximum 800-kilometer range will remain at 500 kilograms. But payload increases would be allowed for shorter-range missiles. For example, in a distance-for-payload tradeoff, a missile with a 550 km range could carry a 1,000 kg payload. In addition, the deal allows greater load weights for South Korean unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones.

What’s going on? We started to investigate, read a draft of Dan Pinkston’s outstanding analysis on the International Crisis Group’s Strong and Prosperous blog and stopped. Pinkston’s piece goes far beyond what we—and we expect many others—thought they knew about the South Korean missile program; it’s a must read.

The most interesting aspect of Pinkston’s analysis is the conflict between Washington and Seoul. The 2001 restraints were the result of prolonged negotiations to revise an earlier 1979 agreement that placed stricter limits on South Korean capabilities. The South Koreans bridled at these constraints as North Korean capabilities marched ahead. Peter Hayes notes South Korean conservatives have always been agitated about the issue. Hayes coins the term “missile juche” in a succinct post for the Nautilus Institute. Pinkston shows that annoyance at US restraints were bipartisan; Kim Dae Jung didn’t like them either.

As the US continued to hold the line, the South Koreans turned to Russia. The ROK acquired technology both through barter deals with the government and through cloak-and-dagger sales that provided the ROK access to technologies from dismantled Soviet/Russian ICBMs; it’s the stuff of a spy novel. Pinkston’s conclusions are worth quoting at length, as they show clearly the limits of US influence:

“Paradoxically, U.S. success in restraining ROK missile development for almost four decades eventually led South Korea to seek and acquire missile technology from elsewhere, particularly from Russia. Over the last couple of years, U.S. negotiators maintained their strict nonproliferation position in their bilateral missile talks, but repeating the same tough message of “unacceptability” along with the U.S. effort to stall and delay a revision of the NMG were no longer credible. South Korea was prepared to abandon all restrictions and Washington could not stop Seoul from doing so. “

The agreement has fueled a discussion here about whether it was a good idea to revise the agreement. In his typically logical but also radical fashion, Doug Bandow applauds the agreement but goes further, arguing we should accelerate OPCON transfer, bring the troops home and even let Japan and South Korea develop nuclear weapons. Bandow’s hope: “the mere possibility of the former doing so might encourage Beijing to do more to pressure the DPRK to accept a deal giving up nuclear weapons.”  We all appreciate the moral hazard problems in the alliances. But I can certainly imagine a lot more unpleasant outcomes from such a policy course, including ones that will entangle the US in ways we don’t want to be entangled. The alliances don’t just engage us; they also help us limit exposure to destabilizing courses of action by our alliance partners.

And what, exactly, is the purpose of the new capability? In an earlier post arguing the South Korean case, Bruce Klingner argues that the limitations really do hamstring the South Koreans. “The only way for South Korea to reach North Korean targets in the rear areas—including some of Pyongyang’s 700 Scud missiles—with ballistic missiles would be to place them along the demilitarized zone, well within range of North Korea’s artillery.” But is blanketing North Korea in fact stabilizing in crisis or would such a capability create incentives to “use them or lose them?”

And are these the issues we should be worried about? There is no evidence that technical limitations on missile capabilities were responsible for the deterrence failures of 2010. The failure was not in capabilities but in signaling resolve to use them. Is the argument that breaking these limits signals resolve? How and why?

One small bit of collateral damage is to the Missile Technology Control Regime. The 34 member countries commit to follow export control guidelines on missiles with ranges greater than 300 kilometers carrying payloads larger than 500 kilograms. The MCTR does not restrict member countries from developing their own capabilities. But since 1993, the US has urged members to exercise self-restraint in their own programs as well. According to Defense News, senior U.S. non-proliferation official Vann Van Diepen said over the summer that the standards of the MTCR had to be balanced against members’ “legitimate defense requirements” and that the ROK was therefore justified in exceeding the limits. All multilateral agreements have exceptions, but they can easily lead to an unraveling. If these provisions are subject to exceptions, what about other countries living in bad neighborhoods?

The North Korean reaction, published on October 9 by KCNA was predictable, but with one interesting twist: the statement made reference to future missile tests for military purposes and did not even pretend that they would be “satellites.” Hankyoreh traces out some of the domestic political issues in South Korea, including  the slighted National Assembly and concerns about entrapment in US missile defense objectives.

Russia was negative.  Comments by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman seemed restrained to us: generic appeals to cooperation but no explicit mention of opposition to the agreement per se. Liu Ri, an expert on North Korea at the Party School, has a thoughtful piece for the Global Times—of all venues—saying that the missile extension is a North-South affair and should not be read as having implications for China one way or the other; Liu Ri almost seems sympathetic to the South . But China Daily ran a much more alarmist piece by Hu Mingyan, a researcher at the Center for Northeast Asian Studies in Jilin that argues that the missile agreement should be read as part of a larger US containment strategy.

We agree with Bandow on one point: as long as the DPRK behaves as it has, it is predictable that Japan and South Korea will do something about it. This is not a threat the US needs to wield; it is a simple statement of fact.  Moreover, that extends to the much more important game of interest to Beijing, which is not medium-range offensive capabilities but theatre missile defenses.

On that front, the LMB government has been struggling with technical problems in its lower-tier defense system, based in part on purchases from Germany. Given these issues—and perhaps the larger cost and strategic implications—the Ministry of Defense announced several weeks ago that it would not be participating in the multi-layered defensive system the US is trying to piece together in the region.