June 14, 2012

South Korea: Shooting too far?

Since March 2012, South Korea has been negotiating with the US to extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 1000km in order to cover the whole Korean peninsula. The current agreement from 1979 limits South Korea’s ballistic missile range to 300 kilometres with a payload of up to 500 kilograms. Although Seoul remains optimistic, the proposal has had a lukewarm reception from Washington. In my opinion, neither extending the ballistic missile range nor maintaining the 1979 agreement are optimal for the region.

At first glance it would seem wise for such a change to be made. The presence of North Korea and the uncontrollable rise of China should be enough of an impetus for the US to improve South Korea’s weaponry. It is absurd that South Korea’s ballistic missiles barely cover the Korean peninsula, while Pyongyang is testing (although not successfully) missiles that could reach Alaska. The 1979 agreement is undoubtedly archaic and out of touch with the developments of the last 30 years.

South Korea desperately needs Washington to agree to this proposal. It is wholly in line with South Korea’s goal of improving its military capabilities to be able to effectively respond to North Korea, as outlined in Defense Reform Plan 307. Currently, Seoul has no choice but to cling onto Washington for protection. This cannot continue, as demonstrated by the events in 2010.

However, it is unclear whether extending South Korea’s ballistic missile range would be beneficial. There are several obstacles that stand in the way. First and foremost, the greatest hurdle is China. Just in the last year, there have been numerous incidents that have caused Sino-US friction. Extending ROK’s missile range would exacerbate relations, despite Seoul’s claim that a 1000 kilometre ballistic missile range would not pose a threat to its neighbours. Regardless, this would bring the US presence closer to China’s borders.  This raises red flags in Beijing, especially combined with Leon Panetta’s announcement to pledge 60 per cent of the American navy fleet to the Pacific. With the possibility of triggering an arms race in the Asia-Pacific, Washington remains cautious and rightly so.

Secondly, is this the right way to deal with North Korea? Having South Korea’s ballistic missile range cover the Korean peninsula will be perceived as a threat by Pyongyang. According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, security on the Korean peninsula has been at its worst since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. With the steady deterioration of stability in the Korean peninsula since 2010, the tiniest provocation could lead to escalation.

Extra caution must be taken with North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un. There is no way to predict how he will react. The Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong shelling are often attributed as acts of the younger Kim trying to establish his legitimacy both in North Korea and in the international community. There is no way to predict how he will react to this change. If the nuclear tests in April are anything to go by, we should assume that he is no less brutal than his father.


The issue of South Korea’s ballistic missile range has been tossed around frequently as a political tool in the last decade. Perhaps this is Lee Myung Bak’s way to win over votes for this December’s presidential elections. This is a safe assumption since anti-North Korea sentiments are running high in South Korea. Regardless of the true intent, advantages, or the disadvantages of this possible change, it is a dangerous situation overall. East Asian stability is tenuous and this issue must be approached with the utmost caution. The US, Korea, and its neighbours must ensure that the region is secure without risking full-fledged war. Although this may seem simple, there is no easy solution.

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About the Author

Yoonah Je
Yoonah is currently a postgraduate student at the War Studies department at King’s College London, pursuing a degree in International Peace and Security. She completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University in the US, and received a dual degree with honours in Spanish and International Relations. Her main interests lie in international security, with a regional focus on East Asia.


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