South Korea announced on Sunday it had reached a new agreement with the U.S. that allows it to substantially extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 800 km and to greatly increase the payload of shorter-range missiles. The move, which has been described as a means to increase South Korea’s deterrence capability vis-à-vis North Korea, could make other countries within the region, particularly Taiwan, seek a similar lifting of restrictions.
A 2001 accord signed between Seoul and Washington prevented the South Korean military from developing ballistic missiles with ranges of more than 300km and payloads exceeding 500kg (prior to that agreement, the maximum range was 180km, but North Korea’s test-firing of a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998 encouraged the change). The 2001 arrangement, which reflected the guidelines stipulated in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary mechanism principally meant to curb nuclear proliferation and the means to deliver nuclear warheads, held for years as Washington feared lifting it would spark an arms race in Asia.
Pyongyang’s continued efforts to develop long-range missiles and nuclear technology, however, appear to have convinced the U.S. of the virtues of having its local ally bolster its own deterrence capabilities. Under the revised regulations, South Korea’s ballistic missiles will be able to cover the whole of North Korea (its cruise missiles are exempt from those rules). The 800km cap nevertheless ensures that South Korea’s ballistic missiles won’t be able to threaten other countries like China and Japan. While the extended-range will be restricted to payloads of no more than 500kg, the revised agreement also permits shorter-range missiles to carry payloads weighing as much as 2 tons. The new agreement also allows South Korea to extend the range and payload (up to 2.5 tons) of its unmanned aerial vehicles, and to equip them with weapons.
According to South Korean National Security Adviser Chun Yung-woo, the new policy is intended to help curb provocations by Pyongyang, while a spokesperson for President Lee Myung-bak maintains that the change does not signify an imminent change in strategy. On Monday, however, local media reported, citing an unnamed government official, that South Korea plans to build two new ballistic missiles with ranges of 550 and 800 km by 2015.
It remains to be seen whether the agreement and new missiles will boost Seoul’s deterrence capabilities. But it nonetheless signifies a greater willingness on Washington’s part to allow regional allies to strengthen their military capabilities, a policy that could in fact dovetail with the U.S. “pivot” to Asia (the so-called pivot need not limit itself to the increased presence of U.S. forces in the region, and could include a shift in policy vis-à-vis the ability of key allied nations to boost their capabilities, possibly with U.S. assistance).
Taiwan is another U.S. ally within the region that is sure to draw lessons from this development. Much like South Korea, for years Taiwan has sought to increase its deterrence through missile deployments. In Taiwan’s case, Washington has applied the same rules on range and warheads, though the island’s program has focused primarily on cruise missile technology — the Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) family of missiles developed by the Chung Shan Institute for Science and Technology (CSIST). Although the Hsiung Feng has been designed to principally play an anti-ship role (HF-1, HF-2 and the HF-3 “carrier killer”), efforts to develop a longer-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM), the HF-2E, with a range of about 650km, were initiated and immediately ran into strong resistance from Washington. Some defense experts alleged the decision to proceed with the program may have resulted in the initial refusal to sell Taiwan the 66 F-16C/Ds it has been seeking since 2006, as well as the denial of visas for senior officials at CSIST. It is also rumored that Washington’s disapproval of the program may have led to the cancellation of an indigenous space-launch vehicle program.
The crisis over Taiwan’s plans to develop LACMs was briefly exacerbated after senior officials in the Chen Shui-bian administration, as well as a handful of American academics, warned that they could be used against Chinese urban centers, or even the Three Gorges Dam, should China attack the island. Since then, Taiwanese officials have made it clear that the missiles would be used strictly as a counterforce component — in other words, against purely military targets.
The Taiwanese military has nevertheless forged ahead with development and production of the HF-2E, and is expected to begin mass-production of the Wan Chien (“Ten Thousand Swords”) standoff long-range air-to-ground missile, to be outfitted on the upgraded F-CK-1 “Ching Kuo” Indigenous Defense Fighter, in 2014. The main function of the Wan Chien, which can reportedly contain as many as 100 secondary bomblets, will be for suppression attacks on enemy airfields, ports, missile sites, and radar positions.
With both South Korea and Taiwan, the restrictions imposed by Washington also stemmed from a reluctance to allow the development or acquisition of offensive missile technology lest this escalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, respectively. If Pyongyang learns to live with its neighbor’s greater missile capabilities, and more importantly, if such capabilities do increase deterrence, Washington could in turn be more inclined to extend a similar advantage to Taiwan.