Scud B MissileNations from around the globe will converge on Seoul, South Korea, from March 26-27 to discuss nuclear security at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will be taking the opportunity (and U.S. President Obama’s availability) to hash out revised agreements with the U.S. to allow for an extension of South Korean missile range limits. The Wall Street Journal has the details:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak indicated on Wednesday that talks between South Korea and the U.S. on extending the range of South Korea’s missiles beyond the current 300 kilometer (186 mile) limit may be close to an agreement.

South Korea and the U.S. have reportedly been in discussions since last year to revise a 2001 bilateral agreement so that South Korea can develop missiles that could land anywhere in North Korea. The 2001 agreement restricts South Korea’s missile capability for high-velocity missiles to a range of 300 kilometers and payload of 200 pounds. South Korea is allowed to develop slower, surface-skimming missiles that can go up to 800 miles.

Mr. Lee said that the U.S. and South Korea agree on the need for a “new security environment.”

“The 300 kilometer range was set many years ago, predicated on the assumption that any fighting would be around the demilitarized zone (that separates North and South Korea),” Mr. Lee said in a group interview. His remarks were embargoed until Thursday.

“Now North Korea has missiles and long range artillery that can reach all the way down to Jeju Island. South Korea is in need of expanding its defense posture in case of any contingencies,” he said.

“The U.S. and South Korea have been discussing this issue and we believe a solution will be in place soon.” (Source: The Wall Street Journal: Korea Real Time)

As previously reported, the South Korean military already possesses cruise missiles with potential ranges beyond the WSJ’s estimates (1000km-1500km), and these systems, while slower than ballistic missiles, have a very similar profile to the U.S. tomahawk missile, along with a theoretically-similar, high success rate. The above article paints the South Koreans as somewhat crippled in its missile capabilities. That’s not quite the case.

The lack of larger payloads and ballistic missiles has allowed the South Korean cruise missile program to fall under a “defensive weapons” posture in the eyes of its detractors. The U.S. allowing South Korea to proceed down a path towards ballistic missile production (and potential ranges that reach beyond North Korea, AKA: Beijing) would both significantly increase the ire of North Korea and China, and give the region more fuel to consider South Korea a truly offensive threat with first strike capabilities.

The deal would also be an early sign of America’s changing Pacific doctrine. As the U.S. government cuts military spending and programs,  the military will continually find more and more need to allow autonomy for its Allies, especially if that military spending by an ally results in a better defense scenario for America. A possible example of this revised path lay in the recent Japanese decision to place missile platforms and heightened destroyer patrols in the southern islands, an area normally under U.S. care. This move will allow Japan new autonomy in intercepting a potential North Korean missile launch in April, as well as future North Korean threats, potentially allowing the U.S. to focus on other threats.

Of course, America will have to closely weigh the threat of escalation with North Korea and China against any improved capabilities that this missile range deal might bestow upon South Korea. While President Lee remains optimistic, I’m not completely convinced that America is ready to cut the strings just yet.

This author loves to play devil’s advocate, so he warns South Korea that if they find themselves getting their missile range wishes, they should seriously consider South Korea’s role in current U.S. Pacific Doctrine/Air-Sea Battle scenarios, as South Korea currently appears to be lining up as a volunteer “time buffer, allowing the U.S. to establish a stable line around Japan, while Seoul and its surrounding environments are wiped off the map. They may want to ask why there’s no “land” in Air-Sea Battle.

It’s fun to see the “under the table deals” that occur around a semi-peace-promoting conference. While President Lee’s has the U.S.’s attention, he also recommends checking in with President Obama on that whole F-35 thing that Mr. Lee either already agreed to buy or didn’t at all.

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch