Korean Missile-Rattling

South Korea’s unveiling of the Hyunmu-3C cruise missile on April 19 was a big put-down for North Korea.

South Korea doesn’t usually dignify the North’s shows of force by responding in kind. However, North Korea’s launch of the Unha-3 rocket earlier this month ultimately proved to be more a show of weakness than a show of force, the rocket’s failure alerting the world to little more than Pyongyang’s technological deficiencies.

Seoul evidently couldn’t resist the temptation to highlight the contrast between its own cutting-edge military systems and Pyongyang’s dull blades: while the North makes a lot of noise about systems that don’t work, the South quietly but effectively develops systems that do.

So Seoul’s unveiling of the Hyunmu-3C cruise missile on April 19 was basically an almighty put-down, a rebuke to the misguided fanfare that the North had whipped up around its non-functioning rocket. The missile has a range of up 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers, enabling it to strike anywhere within North Korean territory and giving Seoul the ability to knock out rockets like the Unha-3 on the launch pad. Kim Jong-un probably wishes the South had made use of this capability before the Unha-3 had the chance to blast off.

The South debuted a new tactical short-range ballistic missile system at the same time as it went public with the Hyunmu-3C. The official announcement of new missile systems is rare in South Korea, and was clearly a direct response to the North’s activities. “If our power is strong, we can deter enemy provocations,” said President Lee Myung-bak with reference to the two missile systems. That is highly debatable: the South’s military superiority over the North has been beyond question for many years, but that has never dissuaded the North from provocative action.

The South Korean general who presented the new missiles to the media, Major Gen. Shin Won-Sik, said: “With such capabilities, our military will sternly and thoroughly punish reckless provocations by North Korea.” That is also questionable. The implications of destroying one of the North’s rockets – however provocative its impending launch might be – would be far more severe than the implications of letting it take off, namely that it would most likely fail within seconds and drop harmlessly into the sea.

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So the Unha-3 and the Hyunmu-3C haven’t really told us anything that we didn’t already know. The North is as technologically backward as the South is advanced: no change there. But announcing the existence of the Hyunmu-3C served two important purposes. It made clear to the South Korean people that Seoul can strike instantly and accurately if the North ever looks like launching a missile that actually works. And it made clear to North Korea’s new leader that the South already has the power to nullify the missile program that the North continues to devote scant resources to developing.

In the final reckoning, April’s bout of missile-rattling has given Kim Jong-un a lot more to think about than his southern counterpart.