OPINION

[Heo Mane] Why is South Korea’s missile range limited?

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Aug 22, 2012 - 20:09
  • Updated : Aug 22, 2012 - 20:09
Missile range limits to South Korea need to be revised as soon as possible. North Korea has constantly developed its missile capabilities by extending its range, while South Korea has been prevented from catching up with its rival.

The Pyongyang regime launched a long-range missile, the Kwangmyongsong-3, in April, but failed as it crashed into the West Sea a few minutes after liftoff. Though Pyongyang said it meant to put a satellite into orbit, it broke the U.S-North Korea agreement that it would not further test missile technology and continue its uranium enrichment programs. 

Why has South Korea failed to extend the range for its missiles? Is it due to the lack of its efforts? Or does it result from the backwardness of Korea’s missile technology? Or is Korea intentionally ignorant of its necessity? All these questions require closer reexamination.

The worsening situation in Northeast Asia compels both Korea and the U.S. to closely look into the issue. Despite hopes for peace, the region’s security environment has recently deteriorated and become more militarized. China continues to push forward with the modernization of its army, air and naval capabilities, claiming that there are no longer open waters in the South China Sea.

The country has secured denial capabilities to the U.S. naval and air forces. It appears to have increased the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its size and activities, gradually heading toward military cooperation in the region.

Japan has officially declared it would revise its peace constitution that stipulates that it will give up war permanently along with its national armed forces. It seeks to change Article 9, which renounces the right of belligerency.

North Korea has become more belligerent by declaring “no sail zones” near its disputed sea border with the South, following its sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeongdo in the West Sea. All this means Seoul and Washington must revise the Missile Technology Control Regime they forged in 2001.

South Korea’s failure to extend its missile range is due to the MTCR rather than a lack of willingness. Under the MTCR, the country is banned from developing ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers, which is not sufficient to effectively deter Pyongyang’s middle and long-range missile threats.

Early last year, South Korea and the U.S. agreed to develop a missile with a 500 kilometer range, mainly to avoid irritating China and Japan. A local diplomatic source said later that the two countries appeared to be reaching an agreement toward Korea’s 800 kilometer range proposal, but Washington suddenly put it aside on fears that the new accord would put parts of China and Russia within reach.

This is unacceptable. It means the U.S. does not respect South Korea’s missile sovereignty. It also means that the U.S. does not pay attention to the difference in ranges between Seoul and Pyongyang, which make Seoul’s defense and security vulnerable.

Pyongyang is already equipped with the Scud and Rodong missiles capable of striking anywhere in the South and some areas of Japan. The Kwangmyongsung-3 is known to have a 6,700 kilometer range, with which Pyongyang is able to hit across the ocean in Hawaii, Alaska and the mainland U.S.

Recently, Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review said that the North will achieve the necessary technology to mount a nuclear warhead onto a ballistic missile within a decade, despite its launch failure in April.

South Korea makes cruise missiles with a 1,500km range. But they are so slow in flight speed that it can easily become a target of anti-missile attacks from North Korea. Moreover, the warheads they can carry are so lightweight that they cannot have sufficient impact. That could make Seoul unable to effectively counter North Korea’s long-range missiles deployed in Musudan-ri and on its borders with China.

Pyongyang will even be able to mount biological and chemical bombs on its missiles when it completes the miniaturization process. All these would lead to a bigger asymmetric strategic balance between the two Koreas. The continued asymmetry is likely to intensify tension across the peninsula. Such a security situation may induce the North’s military to launch a preemptive strike on the South, effectively starting another Korean War.

Today, the South Korean military is equipped with only two ballistic missiles ― Hyunmoo-I and II. The former has only a 180 km range capable of reaching the North Korean capital and the latter has a 300 km range able to reach Sinuiju. Our military cannot target any objects deployed in these areas when it fires ballistic missiles from the southern part of the country. We should lift the 300 km restriction, which has hindered Seoul’s deterrent capabilities over the past 11 years. The government has to push for talks with the U.S. to extend the range and narrow the gap with Pyongyang.

The South should be allowed to produce missiles with a range of at least 1,500 kilometers to be able to strike anywhere in the North from Jeju Island. The rearrangement alone will enable Seoul to strengthen its security capability. 

By Heo Mane

The writer is professor emeritus at Pusan National University and president of the Korea-EU Forum. ― Ed.