Bolstering South Korea’s arsenal won't stop North Korea
© KCNA via Getty Images

North Korea’s recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and attainment of missile-ready nuclear warheads demonstrate its ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. Adrift in the sea of subsequent analyses, however, is another important development: that South Korea and the United States will re-negotiate the bilateral missile guidelines that restrict Seoul’s missile capabilities.

Last eased in 2012, the previous deal to lower barriers on South Korean missiles was sharply criticized as ineffective, harmful to regional security dynamics, and contrary to global arms control efforts. While increasing missile capabilities in the North may now make bigger missiles in the South seem more reasonable, the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal today makes short-sighted strategies even riskier than before. Easing South Korean missile restrictions is not only harmful to long-term non-proliferation efforts — it is ineffective at defending against North Korean missiles and detrimental to efforts to de-escalate tensions.


The case for easing missile restrictions to South Korea appears logical at first glance. North Korea has significantly improved its missile delivery systems, made progress in the miniaturization and yield of its nuclear warheads and accelerated the rate of its missile development since the Obama administration agreed to the increase of South Korea’s missile range from 300km to 800km. To South Korea, these developments justify the further easing of restrictions on its missile capabilities as a measure of preventing further North Korean provocations and ensuring self-defense.


Additionally, Seoul’s argument benefits from the restraint and strategic awareness it appears poised to bring to the negotiating table. While the 2012 agreement focused on increasing the permitted range of the projectiles, Seoul now states “more weight will be given to the payload… than the missile range issue.”

In particular, South Korea seeks to double the maximum payload of its 800km missile to a full ton (roughly 900kg). The shift from expanded missile range to increased payload should be more palatable to crucial regional players China and Japan, both of whom warily eyed South Korea’s previous bid to loosen missile restrictions.

Yet, if one scratches the surfaces, it is clear that easing limits in order to boost Seoul’s missile program is an irresponsible and ineffective strategy. Expanding South Korean missile capabilities to appease the government in Seoul and temporarily smooth U.S.-South Korea relations would prioritize a short-term gain over a long-term blow to nonproliferation efforts.

Additionally, though the prospects for successful denuclearizing talks with the North are nil, the hypocrisy of decrying proliferation while spreading advanced technologies to the South provides justification to the development of other rogue missile programs — such as the Iranian missile regime — that could foreseeably evolve into North Korea-like crises.

Even more importantly, doubling the payload of South Korean missiles ultimately fails to address the core threat that North Korea’s nuclear strategy poses to Seoul. While more powerful missiles may be effective at carrying out a pre-emptive strike on the portion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons that are stockpiled deep underground, many North Korean nuclear weapons would remain untouched in transport erector launchers, highly mobile and difficult to track vehicles that transport missiles across the country for launching.

That is a function of intelligence and the limits of targeting against unpredictably moving targets, not payload. Though some of North Korea’s mobile missiles could be destroyed in pre-emptive attacks, not all would be. And with pre-emptive strikes on legitimate nuclear powers, the strategy is all or nothing, as the United States or its allies would subsequently fall victim to nuclear attacks under North Korea’s “go first” nuclear policy. 

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis recently indicated that the U.S. is “favorably inclined” to changes that improve South Korea’s defenses. Without question, the escalating North Korean missile threat is dire and warrants precisely that. But, in an era where North Korea wields a legitimate and mobile nuclear arsenal, increasing the payload of South Korean missiles does not improve anything beyond the chances of nuclear conflict. 

The facts of the case also speak to the broader truth that military solutions to dealing with North Korea’s challenge are not credible. Such options have become increasingly delusional as the North’s missile program has matured over the past decade, and should now be unequivocally taken off the table. Policymakers must recognize that Pyongyang now wields a legitimate nuclear arsenal and employ strategies that seek to ease tensions rather than escalate them. That will unavoidably require opening a dialogue with the Kim regime, and in practice, is likely to entail forgoing current demands for preconditions to initial talks.

With the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal confirmed, it would be a small concession that could first alleviate tensions and later build to restrictions on Pyongyang’s missiles. The success of diplomacy is far from guaranteed — but at this point, South Korea and the United States have few other options and little else to lose.

Ian Armstrong is the Geostrategy & Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an independently contracted Geospatial Intelligence Analyst for All Source Analysis, as well as a senior analyst and commissioning editor at Global Risk Insights. Armstrong earned his BA in Political Science from Temple University in 2015.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.