This post is a slight tangent from our normal content, but an announcement on April 4th caught my eye and I couldn’t resist writing about it. I’ve previously worked on projects dealing with ballistic missiles in East Asia and China’s strategic arsenal, so discussions on ballistic missile buildups in the region always pique my interest.
Reuters ran an article on April 4th briefly detailing South Korea’s recent ballistic missile test and its desire to increase its ballistic missile range to 800km, which the US sanctioned a few years back. In the article, military spokesman Kim Min-seok claims that the program is aimed at countering the DRPK’s missile and nuclear threats.
However, 800km is an interestingly large number for just covering the DPRK.
Here is the (very) rough range of a 300km missile launched from ROK territory. This map includes Dokdo as a potential location for missile launches, which may be strategically and militarily unrealistic, but the nuances go far beyond the purview of this blog.
Zoomed in a bit to give better context:
Only a small part of the DRPK lies outside the current ROK missile range. Kanggye, on the edge of that coverage, is of particular importance to South Korean strategists due to the city’s role in arms production.
So what would increasing the missile range to 800km look like?
From a strategic standpoint, missiles with longer range would allow the ROK to station its ballistic arsenal farther south in the more protected mountainous regions and still reach its targets in the DPRK. Rajin is a little less than 800km from Busan, so missiles positioned anywhere in South Korea could reasonably target any location in the DPRK. But neighboring states, evaluating the full potential of this future system, will no doubt take into consideration how significant populations in China, Japan, and even Russia will be vulnerable to South Korean missiles if the balance of power and military alignments in the region ever change.
However, Seoul is not being openly belligerent; it is also responding to the ever-accelerating arms race in Northeast Asia.
As the PLA’s Second Artillery Force adds the still-mostly-unseen DF-41, DF-12, and DF-16 missiles to its already robust ballistic arsenal of 11s, 15s, 21s, 31s, aging 5s and potentially newly upgraded 5B, the ROK finds itself looking at maps where it is completely within range of every significant missile in China’s arsenal without a comparable domestic system to deter Beijing.
At the same time, Japan’s recent success with the Epsilon rocket is also raising eyebrows. The Epsilon is a civilian solid-fueled rocket known for its ‘lower cost’ (relative to Japan’s other rockets, still fairly expensive at the moment), its ease of assembly, and lower ground-crew requirements, which is a good start for a future mobile military ballistic missile system. Japan currently does not maintain any offensive missile systems, but, like all civilian space programs, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s rocket technology can serve as the basis for a military ballistic missile program.
This isn’t to say Japan is developing ballistic missiles – rather that governments with bad relations and chronic mistrust with Tokyo may interpret their space program and rocket development as the framework for a future military program, fueling their own drive to acquire longer range missiles. This fear is definitely exacerbated by the current domestic controversy over the revision or easing of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which currently binds the Japanese military to strictly self-defense roles, and the recent lifting of Japan’s weapons export ban. Other more explicit examples of Tokyo’s increased military activity include the increase in the number of sorties flown and the recent proclamation that it will shoot down any DPRK ballistic missiles launched in the next month.
To clarify, Seoul and Tokyo are not yet engaged in a secret missile race under the guise of self-defense against DPRK threats, but this post simply outlines where there is room for escalation. The perception that South Korea is deploying longer-range missiles could create a security dilemma for Japan, pushing Tokyo to turn the phantom ballistic arsenal into a very real missile program, adding further tensions to already-strained relations the region.
For Pyongyang, Seoul’s move diminishes DPRK’s deterrent capabilities. The ROK’s ability to target any DPRK installation with survivable missiles from anywhere on the peninsula gives the ROK armed forces an unprecedented amount of coercive and compellent strength. A mini-missile gap (one that actually exists, unlike the Cold War variant espoused in the United States) is being closed, and only one side has the economic capacity to keep playing – though this has not stopped the DPRK in the past.
This could potentially force the DPRK into another means of costly propagandistic or military deterrence – probably an increasingly visible nuclear weapons program, something the ROK is unlikely to match. Additionally, a successful and public uranium-based weapons program would free North Korea from the necessity of importing plutonium (though it would still need other imported goods for the program) removing at least one variable in their weapons program’s supply chain.
At the same time, an operational or the perceived possibility of an operational uranium-based nuclear weapons program would draw the ire of the international community with consequences for US diplomacy in Northeast Asia. Unless Washington can pull together an unlikely coalition to enforce a total embargo of the DPRK, the long-term effect of Pyongyang’s enhanced nuclear capabilities will be the lengthening of Washington’s ‘strategic patience,’ further diminishing diplomatic engagement between the two countries.
However, the region’s military establishments may not stick to the doom and gloom scenario outlined above.
One opportunity created by the threat of a regional missile race will be the increased incentive for ROK, PRC, DPRK, and if necessary, Japan, to ratify a treaty comparable to the otherwise-dying Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty was originally a treaty between the US and the USSR banning ground launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, meant to help stabilize the still-tense Europe in the late 1980’s. Unfortunately, the US and Russia have both thrown around accusations of breeches and side-stepping, and it is rapidly approaching its demise, especially with the rise of ballistic-missile powers such as China and India.
With China, India, Pakistan, the DPRK, the ROK, and possibly Japan poised to bolster its ballistic weapons capabilities, and President Putin hinting at abandoning the INF, the modern Asian theater may be significantly less stable than Europe during the Cold War. At the very least, Europe never had so many separate antagonistic powers heavily armed with ballistic missiles. And this is precisely why the ROK’s entry into the ballistic missile game, especially if Japan comes along as well, could heat the region up to the point where a new INF-style treaty for the region could become relevant and desired by the major players involved.
More powers, more antagonism, more historical grievances, and, of course, more missiles means more friction, more uncertainty, and more chances for the region to break out in conflict, intentionally or unintentionally escalating. This all points towards the formation of a regional security regime in order to de-escalate and manage rising tensions.
For the DPRK, at least, a treaty reducing arms is a lot cheaper than an arms race, and being the signatory to a Great Powers-type arms reduction treaty may bring the sort of associative prestige that the regime seeks.
Then again, attempts by the great powers to control the naval arms race in the 1920s did not lead to lasting peace in the Pacific – so perhaps incentive alone will not be enough to curb the enthusiasm of the interested parties who see these missiles as indispensable to their nation’s long-term survival.
We leave you with this clip to better illustrate part of the dilemma outlined above.
Much like the Rodong Sinmun, avoid if you dislike violence or harsh language.
Credit to my former colleague Nick for using it to illustrate what a security dilemma looks like to rational human beings.
For those interested, the downloadable KMZ of the maps and ranges I drew out can be found here. It works best in Google Earth.