On Friday South Korea announced it had test fired a new, longer range ballistic missile and has plans to further increase the range of its ballistic missiles in the future.
According to Reuters, South Korea’s Defense Ministry made the announcement in response to a question during a press briefing. When asked if South Korea had recently tested a 500 kilometer (km) range missile before, the spokesperson replied: “We test-fired it, and we succeeded. And we’re going to make 800-km missiles.”
Under the terms of a 2001 bilateral agreement with the United States, South Korea had previously maintained a ban on domestically produced ballistic missiles with ranges exceeding 300 km and payloads larger than 500 kg. In October of 2012, however, the two sides announced a new agreement which would allow South Korea to extend the range of its ballistic missiles to as much as 800 km, in effect giving it the ability to target any position in North Korea without allowing it to substantially threaten third countries like China and Japan.
Initially, South Korea had said it planned to procure these 800 km ballistic missiles by 2017. However, South Korean military officials reportedly moved up the timeline to 2015 following North Korea’s third nuclear test and subsequent bellicose rhetoric in the spring of last year. The announcement of the tests of 500 km ballistic missiles seems to confirm these reports.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin explained the need for the longer range ballistic missiles to troops along the front lines last year when he said: “Many of North Korea’s missile bases are located in the rear (northern region). To be able to destroy the origin of provocations, ballistic missiles with an 800-kilometer range should be promptly put in place.”
The longer range ballistic missiles are an essential part of South Korea’s provocative new military doctrine that calls for using conventional weapons to preemptively destroy North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon sites during a crisis.
South Korea’s announcement of the tests comes on the heels of North Korea’s test of two of its Rodong-class (Nodong) ballistic missiles last week. Those missiles are believed to have traveled about 650 km before falling into the Sea of Japan although their maximum ranges are roughly twice that distance. The U.S. initially signaled that it may seek additional UN sanctions against Pyongyang because of the two missile tests last week, and the UN Security Council officially condemned the tests. On Thursday, a South Korean diplomat at the United Nations said that the UN Security Council might take further action against North Korea for the ballistic missile tests. This now seems highly unlikely given Seoul’s own tests.
South Korea’s announcement of its test also comes just days after the two Koreas exchanged artillery fire along their maritime borders. No damage was reported, albeit South Korea captured a North Korean drone that crashed.
Besides more forcefully responding to North Korean provocations, South Korea has also joined the U.S. in refusing to return to the Six-Party Talks until North Korea proactively demonstrates its willingness to dismantle its nuclear program. Next week the South Korean, American, and Japanese envoys to the Six-Party Talks will meet in Washington, DC, the U.S. State Department announced on Thursday. They will likely seek to maintain a united front in the wake of Japanese entering into an official dialogue with North Korea outside the Six-Party Talk framework.