US permits solid fuel for S. Korea’s space launches, increases range of ballistic missiles in Korea

Posted on : 2020-08-03 17:11 KST Modified on : 2020-08-03 17:11 KST
Amendment of S. Korea-US missile guidelines likely part of Washington’s China containment strategy
South Korea’s Naro-1 carrier rocket launches from Goheung County, South Jeolla Province, on Jan. 30, 2013. (photo pool)
South Korea’s Naro-1 carrier rocket launches from Goheung County, South Jeolla Province, on Jan. 30, 2013. (photo pool)

Reports that the US is permitting the full-scale use of solid fuel in South Korean space launch vehicles and has indicated its “flexibility” on the matter of increasing the allowable range of ballistic missiles from 800km are raising questions about the objective behind its actions. Increasing the firing range in particular would give South Korea the capability of launching a direct strike against Beijing, placing it squarely in the middle of the increasingly escalating tensions between the US and China.

The range of S. Korea's ballistic missiles
The range of S. Korea's ballistic missiles

During a July 29 briefing, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for “ongoing efforts to establish complete missile sovereignty” in connection with the amendment of South Korea-US missile guidelines, the Blue House reported. The “complete missile sovereignty” in question was seen as a reference to increasing the allowable ballistic missile range from its current 800 km. A day earlier, Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office, hinted on July 28 that there had been substantial coordination with the US on the issue, declaring that the “matter of firing range restrictions will also be resolved in due time.”

The question is why the US is suddenly showing flexibility on the matter of relaxing its longstanding restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile ranges without asking for anything “in return.” The US has restricted South Korea from possessing “excessive” missile capabilities through guidelines first formulated in 1979. Even as the North Korean nuclear and missile threats intensified during the 2000s, a maximum of 800km -- a distance that would allow for strikes against any part of North Korea from a position in Daegu or elsewhere south of central South Korea -- was maintained through three different amendments without restrictions on warhead weight. Any increase in range beyond that suggests the objective is a threat directed outside of North Korea’s borders.

Currently, the US and China have been in a heated conflict surrounding the positioning of US intermediate-range ballistic missiles in East Asia. In December 1987, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits the production, testing, and deployment of short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km. Since then, China has manufactured some 2,000 missiles of various ranges (90% of them believed to be intermediate-range), giving it the ability to strike US military advance bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including those at Pyeongtaek, Okinawa (Kadena), Yokosuka, and Guam (Andersen).

In response, the US has implemented “dynamic force employment,” relocating troops and major assets to its own territory and away from advanced bases where they would be exposed to the Chinese missile threat. In August 2019, Washington abruptly withdrew from the INF and its constraints on intermediate-range missile development activities. The US is currently demanding that China and Russia join it in a tripartite arms reduction treaty, which China has adamantly refused to do.

In the summer of 2019, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper began to repeatedly signal his aim of deploying new US missiles to the Asia-Pacific region. In October, Japanese news outlets reported that the two sides’ governments had initiated discussions on the matter. In response, China issued a barrage of warnings, singling out South Korea, Japan, and Australia by name while insisting that it would “not sit idly by while neighboring countries deploy US intermediate-range missiles.”

If South Korea and the US increase the allowable range of South Korean ballistic missiles as Seoul is hoping, this would give Washington the ability to use its ally as a proxy to impose curbs on Beijing rather than deploying its own missiles directly. If that happens, it could lead to a crisis incomparably more serious than the one that erupted around the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from 2016 to 2017. In other words, the increased range would become a double-edged sword with devastating consequences for South Korea’s own national security. In contrast with South Korea, Japan does not possess ballistic missiles as offensive weapons, which means that the US can deploy its own weapons there if it chooses.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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