Seoul, South Korea – South Korea is now free to develop missiles of any payload and range it chooses after a deal last month between US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
But the move, announced following the two leaders’ White House summit on May 21, introduced new security risks surrounding South Korea’s missile development and some analysts worried about the potential effect. throughout the region.
The South Korean military already has advanced missile technology, although previously limited to 800 kilometers (497 miles) of range, Yonsei Institute researcher Daniel Bong told Al Jazeera. studies on North Korea. The question is whether the South Korean government wants to join the exclusive club of states with long-range missiles.
“It’s one thing not to have obstacles in missile development, but quite another to go all the way at the risk of going in the wrong direction with China,” Bong said. .
South Korea has already gone in the wrong direction with China on missiles, when it has agreed to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an American missile defense system in 2017.
In response, Beijing imposed severe sanctions.
South Korean analysts affiliated with the government, as well as officials in the Moon administration, have suggested that China understands South Korea’s views on the release of the missile directive, which Seoul called ” regain its sovereignty in the field of missiles ”.
But the US missile plans could still cause problems for South Korea.
In August 2019, the United States took of of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Later, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper suggested that the United States would seek to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles, IRBMs, in the Asia-Pacific region.
“South Korea could be the place, which would be a disaster in the management of our relations with neighboring countries and, of course, China,” senior researcher Sung Ki-young of the ‘Institute for National Security Strategy.
The key will be how far South Korea chooses to go with its missiles.
“By developing longer-range missiles that can reach major cities inside China, South Korea will have less resistance to the deployment of American missiles that could target China,” Yonsei’s Bong said, before to clarify: “I’m talking about nuclear missiles.”
Some fear that the freedom to develop missiles could bring China and North Korea closer together.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with North Korea’s ambassador in Beijing just after the Biden-Moon summit.
“They have shown their family ties… As the US-Korean alliance strengthens, North Korea-China relations will also grow stronger,” Seoul Peace Network director Cheong Wook told Al Jazeera. sik.
The missile guidelines deal also exposed the United States to accusations of hypocrisy, with its continued support for the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions against North Korea.
“The United States has severely restricted, condemned and imposed sanctions on North Korea’s missile development, so South Korea’s missile development shows a kind of double standard,” Cheong said.
Cheong believed it was precisely this kind of so-called double standard, coupled with the resumption of large-scale joint US-Korean military exercises that could see the security atmosphere deteriorate.
“If the joint South Korea-US exercise takes place this summer, North Korea could respond by resuming testing of medium and long-range missiles,” Cheong said.
“Stop playing with fire”
The relaxation of the missile guidelines was one of many agreements reached by the Biden and Moon administrations in May.
The United States is also providing vaccines to 550,000 South Korean soldiers, allegedly to protect the 28,500 members of the American forces working alongside them, while Biden has given his support to President Moon’s initiative to build peace. with North Korea, although Moon is only nine months old. in the office.
In return, Moon has also moved closer to the United States in relation to China: the joint declaration “emphasizes (d) the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
But some have suggested that what appeared to be equal compromises actually gave the United States a greater geopolitical advantage.
“The Moon Jae-in government was oversold by the Biden administration, which proved to be adept at negotiating, because the Moon Jae-in government seemed to be so desperate,” Yonsei’s Bong said.
President Moon is the third South Korean progressive leader in a line who has sought peace and unification on the Korean Peninsula, after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung and President Roh Moo-hyun, under which President Moon was chief of staff.
Recently, South Korea has tried to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington.
Economically, Beijing is holding up. In 2003, it overtook the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner and now accounts for more than a quarter of its exports, or more than $ 125 billion per year.
Meanwhile, it is the United States, with its military bases and so-called “nuclear umbrella”, that guarantees South Korea’s security as China has become increasingly assertive, with frequent incursions. in the exclusive economic zones of South Korea, Taiwan and neighboring countries to the south. China Sea.
Regarding the reference to the Taiwan Strait in the joint Biden-Moon statement, Beijing was quick to respond, its Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian later told a briefing, “the countries concerned… should stop playing with fire “.
“One less excuse”
On missile guidelines, Beijing has so far been somewhat silent and North Korea has offered only a relatively moderate response: a state media article called the move a “reminder.” brutal US hostile policy towards the DPRK and its shameful double play. “
But analysts have pointed to the implications of other elements of the Biden-Moon summit deal and the possible resumption of joint military exercises that North Korea sees as a repeat of an invasion.
South Korean peace activists have accused the war games of fueling tensions, and the Moon administration has sought to suspend joint exercises – or at least tone them down – to generate goodwill with Pyongyang.
But during his confirmation hearing to become the commander of US forces in Korea, General Paul LeCamera said the joint US-Korean military exercises were “extremely important to prepare” and with the delivery of vaccines to South Korean forces. and US, “the Moon The Jae-in government has one less excuse to continually suspend annual joint military exercises with US forces in South Korea,” said Bong de Yonsei.
Despite the challenges, some members of the Moon administration are optimistic that the Biden summit will lead to progress in building peace in North Korea despite the relative lame duck status of the South Korean president.
During their press briefing at the end of Moon’s visit to the White House, Biden referred to North Korea by its official name, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and more importantly, Biden a presented a special envoy to North Korea, a seasoned American diplomat. and negotiator, Kim sang.
Moon himself suggested that the appointment signaled the United States’ willingness to engage North Korea, later telling lawmakers that “the appointment of a US special envoy to the DPRK is tantamount to publicly asking Korea to North to resume dialogue “.
Sung Kim is now due to make his first trip to Seoul.
During the five-day visit, which begins on Saturday, Kim is expected to meet with his South Korean counterparts and also engage in trilateral talks with Japanese officials. This can prove embarrassing, as Tokyo rejected a meeting with South Korean officials at the recent Group of Seven (G7) summit in Cornwall and the three countries have quite different views on how to deal with the North Korea.
The South Korean president has long favored unconditional engagement, while the United States and Japan advocate more warmongering strategies count on the maintenance of sanctions.
As the US-China rivalry intensifies, South Korea’s attempt to pursue its own North Korean project is likely to become increasingly perilous.