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A Quiet Sentence Gives South Korea Back Its ‘Missile Sovereignty’

Seoul had bucked for decades against U.S. restrictions—but China isn’t happy.

By , a journalist and author who has been covering North Korea since 1972.
A South Korean soldier stands by a Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile system
A South Korean soldier stands by a Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile system on Sept. 25, 2017. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

The South Koreans persuaded the Americans to slip a carefully crafted sentence in the middle of the 2,632-word joint statement issued by U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at last week’s summit. It was a small line, one that went unnoticed amid all the talk about the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the need for dialogue on denuclearization of North Korea. But it was also the most explosive line in the document.

The words were both clear and opaque: “Following consultations with the United States, the ROK [Republic of Korea] announces the termination of its Revised Missile Guidelines, and the Presidents acknowledged the decision.”

Moon exulted as he stood beside Biden after their summit, saying it was “with pleasure that I deliver the news.” Biden, smiling triumphantly as he hailed the success of the summit, was conspicuously silent about South Korea quietly gaining free rein to make any number of missiles, capable of carrying any size payload, flying any distance to potential targets ranging from North Korea to Pyongyang’s traditional allies, China and Russia.

The difference in emphasis was evident in the official reports of what Moon said at the briefing. The South Korean media had him describing the agreement as “symbolic and substantive,” but the White House transcript has Moon using a similar phrase to describe an entirely different agreement, reached in March, for the South to pay around $1 billion this year for keeping America’s 28,500 troops on U.S. bases there. Moon, according to the White House, praised the base agreement, down from $5 billion demanded by Donald Trump as president, for showing “the robustness of our alliance as a symbolic and practical measure.”

The missile guidelines were introduced back in October 1979, when the United States hoped to forestall a missile race that could vastly escalate North-South tensions. But South Korean presidents, whether dictators like Park Chung-hee or liberals like Moon, have always chafed under so-called guidelines imposed by the United States under which they had to yield to U.S. demands in return for security guarantees and technological exchanges. Reclaiming what South Korea terms “missile sovereignty” is thus a symbol of national pride.

As far as Moon is concerned, the search for North-South reconciliation through talks with the North has nothing to do with building up the South Korean missile system to the point at which it can match the North’s own missile defenses. The issues, he made clear, are totally separate. Back in Seoul this week, he saw the appointment of Sung Kim, a veteran American diplomat who’s now U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, as U.S. envoy on North Korean issues—one of the major dividends of the summit, up there with termination of the missile guidelines. The danger, however, is that missile sovereignty will lead to the feared battle for missile supremacy. South Korean missiles have a long way to go to rival those of the North, whose goal is to use them to send nuclear warheads as far as the United States, but skilled South Korean engineers may catch up sooner rather than later.

All bets are off. “The termination of the missile guidelines is a big deal,” said David Straub, a retired U.S. diplomat who served on the negotiating team that haggled with the South Koreans about the guidelines over the years. “Over decades, the United States only agreed very slowly and very reluctantly to easing of the restrictions.” Straub suspects the decision to terminate them is due not only “to the long-standing strong South Korean opposition to them under governments of both the left and the right” but also “to the United States’ desire to be able to take another measure in response to North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and missiles.”

The range of South Korea’s initial self-developed Hyunmoo missiles, introduced in 1986, was limited by the guidelines to 180 kilometers (about 110 miles). The Hyunmoo, literally “Black tortoise,” figuratively “guardian of the northern sky,” has undergone a series of convolutions, drawing on both American and Russian designs, as the distance under the guidelines was extended in 2001 from 180 to 300 kilometers and in 2012 to 800 kilometers, nearly 500 miles—enough to hit targets anywhere in North Korea and portions of China and Japan as well. Payloads were supposed to be no more than 500 kilograms (about 1,100 pounds) until 2017, when restraints on size were removed. “South Korea tended to push the limits of existing guidelines, if not exceed them at times,” Straub said. “I would be very surprised if their ambitions now are not expressed in much longer-range and much more capable missiles.”

Initially, “the sentence on dropping the missile guidelines appears to be a minor addition,” said Bruce Bennett, a researcher at the Rand Corp., but it “has major implications.” For some time, he said, South Korea has been ignoring the guidelines, building cruise missiles with a range of up to 1,500 kilometers. “The now greater potential range of South Korean ballistic missiles,” he said, focuses on enabling them “to hit targets in China, Japan, or Russia and eventually beyond.”

South Korea’s industrial prowess could lead to an arms race with devastating implications. Biden may have assented to removal of the guidelines in hopes of drawing South Korea into the Quad—the security dialogue including the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, all drawn together in common cause against China. Moon, hoping China will use its influence to get North Korea to enter negotiations on its nuclear weapons and missiles, is reluctant to have anything to do with the Quad but has had to respond politely under U.S. pressure.

“The primary target of the revised missile range is China, not North Korea,” said Choi Jin-wook, a longtime North Korea analyst in Seoul. “For a long time, South Korea has been under constraints of a missile range imposed by the U.S. Now South Korea is free, and that freedom was given by the U.S. The two presidents strongly implied that the U.S.-ROK alliance falls in the framework of Indo-Pacific,” meaning the Quad.

“The missile guidelines have long since outlived their usefulness,” said Evans Revere, another retired diplomat who worked on Korean issues at the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “The end of the constraints is a useful symbolic step”—one that “will enable our South Korean ally to take all the steps necessary to defend itself against the North, using the most up-to-date technologies and capabilities.”

That’s “important,” Revere said, “because the North Koreans took full advantage of the Trump administration’s lack of concern to strengthen its short- and medium-range missile capabilities in recent years.” At the same time, he said, “this decision will give the Chinese something new to think about since a U.S. regional ally now has the ability to develop more sophisticated and capable missile systems.”

In the long term, though, the stakes are still higher. As North Korean engineers and scientists are trying to figure out how to affix a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile, South Koreans are likely to imitate them.

“Those advocating that the ROK go nuclear generally do so because they have concluded that the North will never denuclearize,” Revere said. “The South needs to be similarly armed, or they have lost confidence in the U.S. deterrent commitment, or both. That’s why it’s important for the United States to constantly reaffirm its commitment to use all of the capabilities in its arsenal to defend South Korea, and to focus on the goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear threat.”

Neither the Chinese nor the North Koreans are at all happy about the summit. While the North remained silent initially, China’s ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, said in careful understatement that he found the Biden-Moon joint statement “a bit discouraging.” Interestingly, however, he did not focus on the missile guidelines even though China has been extremely outspoken in its denunciation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system installed in the South a few years ago. Rather, he focused on the statement’s brief mention of Taiwan, which China has claimed as its own ever since the anti-Communist forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island redoubt before the victory of the Communists on the mainland in 1949. “This is China’s internal affair,” Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, quoted him as saying in an interview with the South’s MBC TV network.

Just as South Korea wanted the freedom to fabricate all the missiles it wants, so pressure is mounting for the South to rival the North as a nuclear power. “Concern about having its own nuclear weapons has more to do with the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella,’” Bennett, the Rand Corp. researcher, said. “Anxious to avoid U.S. allies building their own nuclear weapons and thus likely inducing others to do the same, the U.S. has for decades committed to a nuclear umbrella to protect the ROK, Japan, and other countries. But as North Korea builds ICBMs that could target the United States with nuclear weapons, the United States may become less willing to risk damage to U.S. cities in order to retaliate against North Korean nuclear weapon attacks on the ROK.”

Now, he said, “some South Koreans worry, for example, that the United States would not trade San Francisco to protect Seoul.” The joint statement, he noted, affirms “the U.S. commitment to provide extended deterrence using its full range of capabilities”—a reference perhaps to the nuclear umbrella. North Korea has yet to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile for carrying a warhead to the United States, but the day may come when the South aspires to fabricating its own ICBMs in a race for a localized version of mutually assured destruction.

Donald Kirk is a journalist and author who has been covering North Korea since 1972.