The DPRK (North Korea) National Defense Commission responded with predictable bravado (“DPRK NDC Reiterates Its Stand to Fight It Out against U.S. and S. Korean Regime”) to Sunday’s announcement by the government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) that it had secured U.S. agreement to amend a 2001 accord that would allow the ROK to develop ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 800 kilometers and payloads of up to 500 kilograms. This amendment extends the current ROK missile range limit of 300 kilometers as a deterrence measure against the North’s own steady development of nuclear and missile capabilities. South Korea will pursue development of these capabilities over the next five years with a target date for deployment of 2017.
North Korea’s statement affirms Pyongyang’s sensitivity to U.S. support for South Korea’s development of capability, which the White House Press Secretary characterized as “a prudent, proportional, and specific response to the DPRK.” The DPRK National Defense Commission spokesman appears to respond directly to this message, seeing the announcement as proof of a hostile U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, marginalizing a “South Korean puppet regime,” and implying a North Korean missile capability to hit “U.S. imperialist aggression forces’ bases in the inviolable land of Korea but also Japan, Guam, and the U.S. mainland.” In light of North Korea’s failed satellite launch of last April, North Korea’s threat comes off as rhetorical bluff, but the prospect of an improved South Korean ballistic missile capability—in combination with Seoul’s planned launch of a Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle scheduled for the end of the month—are sure to rankle in Pyongyang. There is a risk that these developments may push North Korea toward further “satellite” testing of its own despite the fact that such tests are restricted under UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.
The revision of U.S.-ROK missile guidelines reinforces a second message that North Korea is reluctant to acknowledge: the guidelines negotiations reaffirm that the U.S.-ROK security relationship has moved dramatically from a patron-client relationship to an alliance partnership in which South Korea takes lead responsibility for managing its own security. These developments, combined with a new military command relationship in which South Korea will lead from 2015, may be unwelcome in Pyongyang precisely because they enhance the role of South Korea rather than the United States as North Korea’s main partner in managing inter-Korean security and stability.
In addition to concerns about North Korea’s response, there are two other issues of concern regarding the missile guidelines agreement: that expanded South Korean ballistic missile ranges might feed a regional arms race, and that South Korea’s development of longer-range missile capabilities would challenge global regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which seeks voluntary limits by members on development of missile ranges beyond 300-kilometers.
In the context of the shift in the U.S.-ROK alliance, the new guidelines suggest that South Korea should take responsibility to develop its new ballistic missile capabilities keeping in mind not only North Korea, but also the regional security environment. While the alliance with the United States should not serve as an obstacle to South Korea developing new capabilities to defend itself, South Korea must also prudently judge the regional security environment and international norms. In this respect, South Korean National Security Advisor Chun Yung-woo’s statement that “Our government reaffirms that it will faithfully comply with the norms of the international missile nonproliferation regime, MTCR, and maintain maximum transparency in missile development in the future,” provides a foundational principle to which South Korea should continue to adhere as it develops new ballistic missile capabilities.