An expert's point of view on a current event.

Missiles Away!

If you like frantic arms buildups, here's a new Asia policy for you.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

On Sunday, the South Korean government announced that it had strong-armed the Obama administration into gutting what little remained of international efforts to fight the spread of missiles.

On Sunday, the South Korean government announced that it had strong-armed the Obama administration into gutting what little remained of international efforts to fight the spread of missiles.

Wait, let me try that again.

On Sunday, the South Korean government announced that the United States had assented to a revision of Seoul’s missile guidelines, increasing the range of permitted ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometers.

This is a bad idea, one that will worsen security dynamics in Northeast Asia and accelerate the spread of long-range missiles. It represents the triumph of short-term efforts to avoid friction in an important bilateral relationship at the expense of our long-term interest in discouraging the spread of ballistic missiles. The best I can say is that it is an election year here and there.

Although the Obama administration had yet to comment on the agreement as I was writing this piece — it was Sunday and much of official Washington was watching the town’s first playoff baseball game in 74 years — U.S. officials informed members of Congress of the decision over the weekend, describing the step as one of the "counter-measures we and the ROK should take together as an Alliance to address the threat posed by DPRK ballistic missiles."

At some level, this is amusing. U.S. officials often accuse North Korea of making "excuses" when Pyongyang claims that some awful act is in response to some American provocation. They are often right, but in this case, that’s also exactly what the Obama administration is doing — using North Korea as an excuse for what appears to be an acute case of clientitis.

South Korea has sought long-range ballistic missiles since well before the North Koreans were in the business. Seoul and Washington have argued about the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles since the mid-1970s, before the United States was aware of North Korea’s interest in importing its first Scud missiles. How the United States found itself in the position of being able to tell South Korea what sort of missiles it can and cannot build is an interesting tale.

In late 1974, after the Nixon administration proposed withdrawing a significant number of U.S. ground forces from South Korea, the dictator of South Korea, General Park Chung-hee, started a covert program to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Ford administration was able to exert significant pressure on Park to suspend the program in 1976, but Park again resumed efforts after President Carter proposed withdrawing all U.S. combat forces from Korea. Carter eventually abandoned the withdrawal plan. Then, the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency shot Park in the head. (The scene is presented in gory cinematic detail in the 2005 film, The President’s Last Bang.)

That really slowed things down.

Officially, South Korea agreed to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 180 kilometers in mid-1979, while Park was still alive. (The agreement is apparently classified, but as best I can tell it was simply an exchange of letters between John Wickham, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, and the South Korean defense minster.) But Park’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan, followed through with particular gusto, purging the missile program of scientists in an effort to secure American political support for his ugly little military dictatorship. The exchange of letters was not rendered into a formal agreement until 1990.

None of these agreements is public. As far as I can tell, South Korean officials never mentioned the 1979 agreement and avoided talking about the 1990 agreement for several years afterward. The main public source of information about the 1979 memorandum and Chun’s purge was one of Park’s advisers, Oh Won-chol.

The important point is that South Korea’s voluntary guidelines are the direct result of South Korea’s covert nuclear weapons program — a program that continued through the 1980s. When South Korea signed an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, permitting more intrusive access, Seoul admitted to a series of safeguards violations through the 1980s (as well as some undeclared uranium enrichment work through 2000). Although the constituency for building nuclear weapons in today’s democratic South Korea remains a minority, it is not negligible. Certain conservative politicians routinely call for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. Although I doubt the South Korean government would try to build the bomb, that confidence rests on voluntary measures that Seoul has accepted to reassure the rest of the world that its nuclear weapons ambitions are a thing of the past. Limiting the payload and range of its missiles was one of those measures. (I should also note that the agreement contains other restrictions, including on solid-fueled missiles and cruise missiles, as well as provisions for notifying the United States about flight tests and other developments. If you are permitted to read the cables released by Wikileaks, several convey notifications under the "2001 ROK New Missile Guidelines.")

South Korea was always unhappy with the restrictions and persuaded the Clinton administration to ease the guidelines in January 2001 as part of an agreement to bring South Korea into what is called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR is a voluntary cartel among states that possess ballistic missile technology, in which they agree to restrict exports of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as UAVs, that are capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers. The MTCR guidelines are widely used as a yardstick — the sanctions on Iran and North Korea use the MTCR guidelines to define which items should be considered as missile exports. When the United States reached a bilateral disarmament agreement with Libya, an important condition was that it surrender all missiles captured by the MTCR definition.

Relaxing the restriction on South Korea’s missile development from 180 kilometers to the MTCR threshold of 300 kilometers (with a 500 kilogram payload) was a reasonable compromise to bring the ROK into the suppliers’ cartel. Just so long as the ROK remained within the MTCR limits.

An 800-kilometer ballistic missile, however, is another kettle of fish. Why South Korea wants an 800-kilometer range missile is also an interesting question. Reportedly, Seoul initially asked Washington for permission to build a missile capable of carrying 1,000 kilograms a distance of 1,000 kilometers, citing the need to be able to target all of North Korea from Jeju Island, a tourist haven in the waters south of the Korean Peninsula. (If true, you have to wonder if there is a Korean word for chutzpah.) The final compromise at 500 kilograms/800 kilometers places all of North Korea within range of Daegu, in central Korea. South Korea’s national security adviser claimed that the purpose of 800-kilometer missiles "lies in deterring armed provocations by North Korea." If Seoul plans to send conventionally armed missiles streaking into North Korea the next time it shells a South Korean island or sinks a warship, that seems like a pretty good reason not to revise the guidelines. Deterring North Korean provocations remains a serious challenge, but it is hard to see how ballistic missiles offer much of a response.

I am not one to think we should forgo useful military capabilities just to reassure Pyongyang. Some in the North will undoubtedly use this development to support more aggressive policies, but others will have their say, too — and none of us knows enough about North Korean leadership politics to intervene with any confidence. But this agreement does foreclose the possibility of a future deal with North Korea to join the ROK in renouncing MTCR-class ballistic missiles. The Clinton administration came tantalizingly close to such a deal in late 2000 before its time ran out. The Bush administration abandoned the negotiations. I had some modest hope that the Obama administration would resume such efforts, but it was not to be.

While it is hard to see how this deal makes the situation with North Korea much worse than it is, I cannot say the same about how relations with China and Japan may fare. Both countries are likely to be alarmed, and with good reason. Although Tokyo and Beijing are about 1,000 kilometers from South Korea, range and payload are interchangeable along a curve — lower the payload and the missile will fly farther. A notional 800-kilometer missile could fly more than 1,000 kilometers if the payload were reduced to 400 kilograms or less. In case you were wondering, the nuclear weapons design that Pakistan got from China and gave to Libya weighed about 500 kilograms. Current Pakistani nuclear weapons designs do much better than that. There will be defense types in Beijing and Tokyo playing with missile fly-out models for the next few days. They won’t like the results.

One of the reasons that the conservative paper, Chosun Ilbo, gave for seeking a loosening of the missile guidelines? South Korea needs to participate in the "frantic arms buildup" underway in the region. I am not making that up! If you like frantic arms buildups, then this is the policy for you! Here is the actual paragraph:

But China, Japan and North Korea are already engaged in a frantic arms buildup, drastically bolstering their missile capability including intercontinental ballistic missiles, or developing solid rocket boosters that could be diverted for ICBMs.

How it is in the U.S.  interest to encourage South Korea to participate in a regional arms race is beyond me.

Note, too, the reference to Japan — which does not, in fact, have a military surface-to-surface missile capability and, last I checked, was a close U.S. ally. Chosun Ilbo goes out of its way to warn that Japan’s solid-rocket program "could be diverted for ICBMs." Japan and Korea have a poor relationship that dates to Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean peninsula. While much of the press’s attention lately has focused on a small number of uninhabited islands disputed between China and Japan, Japan and South Korea have been playing out a similar drama in smaller scale over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. The United States has pressed South Korea and Japan to sign a bilateral defense accord, but the South Koreans backed out. South Korean politicians, when discussing the issue of missile range, have a disturbing habit of segueing into historical grievances against Japan.

The reference to ICBMs, by the way, is not an accident. Chosun Ilbo has criticized the agreement on the basis that it does limit South Korea’s development of solid-fueled boosters that might be used in a future ICBM program. It is not clear to me whether we are supposed to take seriously the envious references to ICBMs possessed by neighboring countries. The whole notion of a South Korean ICBM seems so far-fetched and pointless that it really makes one wonder if Land of the Morning Calm was meant sarcastically. On my blog, Arms Control Wonk, I have a review of the various rationales for longer-range missiles.

Then there is the broader erosion of our efforts to curb the spread of ballistic missiles. The MTCR is a voluntary regime. Carving out exceptions is dangerous business, given that virtually every country wouldn’t mind an exception or two, especially if there happens to be a multi-billion dollar arms sale on the table. The Obama administration will surely argue this is not, strictly speaking, an exception to the MTCR because South Korea is developing these missiles indigenously. (Amazingly, South Korea has now announced that an 800-kilometer missile has been in development all along and will be ready for deployment in a few years.) But South Korea’s missiles are based in large part on U.S. assistance provided over many years, assistance provided largely on the expectation that South Korea would constrain its missile program. And South Korea joined the MTCR largely on the expectation that participation would make it easier for Seoul to import relevant technologies.

Once upon a time, U.S. policy was based on the notion that proliferation was good when our friends did it and bad only when our enemies did. At some point, however, what you might call enlightened self-interest suggested a different view. Since not everyone agreed which countries were good and which were bad, a regime of proliferating only to one’s friends would ultimately be no regime at all. In place of special pleading, we put in place rules. Enforcing rules is hard enough, but is doubly so when the biggest player gives the impression that rules are made to be broken. France and the United Kingdom sold what were arguably Category 1 MTCR cruise missiles to the United Arab Emirates in the late 1990s and Saudi Arabia in 2010. While the latter sale happened during the Obama administration, which has made such a fuss about proliferation and international agreements, there was nary a peep from Foggy Bottom. One senior administration official apparently described the State Department folks complaining about the sale of cruise missiles to Saudi Arabia as "treaty weenies."

Now another of our friends wants to get into the long-range missile business and that’s fine with us. Well, other countries have friends too, and we may not like some of the sales we’ll see. The treaty weenies may yet have a point.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.