Why Does South Korea Want Ballistic Missiles? Because It Can’t Rely On America
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For years, South Korea has refrained from developing long-range ballistic missiles. In return, it sheltered under America’s military umbrella against North Korean attack.
But South Korea may now opt to build more powerful missiles that would boost the nation’s own military and space capabilities – and render it less reliant on the U.S. for protection.
“At the end of the day, South Korea has to face the possibility of defending itself without totally relying on the U.S.,” Chung Min Lee, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells me.
Last month, South Korean officials announced that they had reached an agreement with the Trump administration to loosen restrictions that have limited the power of South Korean rockets. The new agreement, which changes guidelines established in 1979, is ostensibly meant to allow Seoul to develop more powerful rockets to launch spy satellites.
“I cannot go into classified military details but I can tell you that we will soon have many low-orbit military satellites with excellent surveillance capabilities monitoring the Korean Peninsula from the sky 24 hours a day,” Kim Hyun-jong, a senior national security aide to President Moon Jae-in, told reporters.
Seoul plans to deploy five reconnaissance satellites by 2023, according to South Korean media. South Korea already has a space program that has developed several civilian Earth observation, weather and communications satellites, though not a military surveillance craft. Given South Korea’s volatile neighbor to the north, it’s understandable that Seoul would want its own orbital surveillance capabilities rather than rely on Washington to supply satellite imagery and early warning of North Korean actions.
But the problem is that a rocket capable of boosting a military satellite into orbit can also loft a warhead – conventional or even potentially nuclear – on to distant targets. Solid-fuel rockets can also be launched much more quickly and safely than liquid-fueled models.
While North Korea has developed ICBMs that can potentially hit California, South Korea’s arsenal comprises several short-range ballistic missiles. In 2012, Washington agreed to allow South Korea to build solid-fuel rockets with a longer range of up to 497 miles, and a payload of 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds). In 2017, that payload cap was lifted. In March 2020, South Korea test-fired the new Hyunmoo-4, with a range of 497 miles and a two-ton warhead.
For now, South Korean missiles will still have limited range. “Seoul remained obliged not to build ballistic missiles with a range of more than 800 kilometers, or 497 miles, Mr. Kim said, but hoped to start launching low-orbit military surveillance satellites using its own solid-fuel rockets within the next several years,” according to the New York Times.
Nonetheless, the change does enable South Korea to prepare for development of longer-range missiles with bigger warheads. South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, but a 2017 poll found 60 percent of Koreans want a nuclear capability.
Not coincidentally, the new missile accord comes as the Trump administration considers bringing home some of the 29,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Though South Korea has sharply increased defense spending since 2017 – its $42 billion defense budget is the tenth largest on the planet – President Trump has accused Seoul of insufficient military spending.
Chung believes that South Korea needs to create its own deterrent against North Korean nuclear weapons. “South Korea defense against North Korea’s nuclear weapons is premised on tailored U.S. extended deterrence, or the promise of U.S. nuclear retaliation against North Korea should it use nuclear weapons,” Chung tells me. “This means that in the end, it’s the U.S. president who decides if South Korea will be protected from a North Korean nuclear strike or threat of a strike.”
“So long as South Korea pursues a non-nuclear posture, it has to have aggressive conventional assets. One can’t deter nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. Hence, South Korea’s reliance on U.S. extended deterrence. But this also means that South Korea is outsourcing its national defense strategy.”
Interestingly, Chung also suggests that South Korean ballistic missiles may also serve as a deterrent against China. “In the event of a second Korean War or another major crisis such as North Korean implosion or regime collapse, the notion that China will watch from the sidelines is very unrealistic. Clearly, South Korea can’t deter China by itself and the U.S. will do the heavy lifting, but South Korea has no choice but to consider China’s looming military shadow as a growing security threat.”
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