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.