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.