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.
let me try that again.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.)
really slowed things down.
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.
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.
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.")
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
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.
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.
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.
is in the U.S. interest to encourage
South Korea to participate in a regional arms race is beyond me.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.