By Luo Xi
The US-ROK summit concluded in late May revealed that the US-ROK missile guidelines would be terminated, and restrictions on the range and load capacity of missiles developed independently by the ROK will be lifted, which gives the ROK the so-called "missile autonomy". Behind this move are the geopolitical considerations of the two sides regarding the current security situation in East Asia.
The first US-ROK missile guidelines signed in 1979 set up a "ceiling" for the ROK's self-developed ballistic missiles and stipulates that the missile's range should not exceed 180 kilometers. Since then, the guidelines have been revised many times. The range of the ROK’s missiles has been relaxed, and the restrictions on warhead weight have been removed.
For the US, there are strategic considerations behind the termination of the missile guidelines. On the one hand, it aims to increase the bargaining power for the resumption of negotiations on the DPRK nuclear talks. From the perspective of the US, the DPRK has both strategic and tactical levels of all-round nuclear strike capabilities. At this moment, the US chose to cancel the limit of the ROK’s missile development capability and promptly promote the development and test launch of the ROK’s medium- and long-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, in a bid to reduce its pressure and costs, and use the ROK's power to achieve its strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula.
On the other hand, the US aims to narrow the distance between itself and the ROK to build a strong Indo-Pacific strategic capability system. Currently, the Biden administration has launched the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), and the ROK has become an important target worth winning over. In recent years, the US has been committed to building a missile defense system in Northeast Asia and now has the capability to defend against medium- and short-range ballistic missiles. "Authorizing" the ROK to develop ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with longer ranges will further strengthen the ROK's strategic offensive and defensive force system.
At the same time, removing the "limit" for and restoring the "autonomy" of missile development can also help the ROK accelerate the process of military modernization based on strategic strike capabilities and enhance its independence of national defense construction.
The ROK tested the Hyunmoo-4 new ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers and a payload of 2,000 kilograms in August 2020. In addition, the Hyunmoo series cruise missiles have a maximum range of 1,500 kilometers, indicating that the ROK has possessed medium- and short-range offensive campaign tactical strike capabilities. In recent years, the ROK has been committed to pursuing strategic strike capabilities represented by new-type ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles with longer range, more diverse warheads, and higher precision. A few days ago, there were reports that the ROK military was discussing plans for launching carrier rockets in the air and in the open sea.
We need to stay vigilant because this move will have a profound impact on the regional security situation. The relaxation of the ROK’s missile development is likely to stimulate the DPRK to develop missiles and other weaponry in an accelerated manner. Japan may also make similar demands. A new arms race may emerge in Northeast Asia. All these will bring more uncertainty to the ROK's security situation. For the ROK, the "unbinding" looks like a sweet "carrot", but it is actually a "poisonous apple" that harms its interests.
The Biden administration has repeatedly proposed to lower the strategic position of nuclear weapons and return to the "nuclear-free world" since taking office. However, the US lifting the "ceiling" of the ROK's missile capabilities essentially continues Donald Trump's zero-sum thinking of "peace through strength". This will further complicate the peninsula nuclear issue and the regional situation is likely to become more turbulent and bring more uncertainties to the international arms control and non-proliferation process.
(The author is from the War Research Institute of the PLA Academy of Military Science.)