South Korean military developers reportedly conducted a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, an apparent boon for the U.S. ally’s effort to offset North Korea’s arsenal of conventional and nuclear weapons.
“It will provide the ROK Navy with a stand-off missile capability that can be very effective off the east coast of North Korea,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow David Maxwell said.
The reported test endows South Korea with the curious distinction of being the only country known to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles without also developing nuclear warheads, he added. South Korean officials have pledged recently to develop weapons “with significantly enhanced destructive power” as North Korean officials are preparing a military parade of their own.
“Our military secures advanced high-powered military assets to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula by building strong military capabilities and plans to continue to develop them,” the South Korean defense ministry said, without directly confirming the test.
Analysts in South Korea and the United States agreed that Seoul is unlikely to try to develop its own nuclear warheads to place on those submarine-launched missiles. “As long as the United States and South Korea maintain their alliance, Seoul will not develop nuclear weapons,” Ewha University professor Leif-Eric Easley told the Japan Times.
Maxwell concurred that South Korea is unlikely to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although he acknowledged that “the ROK has the technological capability to produce nuclear weapons if it chose” to do so. Still, the reported launch attests to South Korea’s potential for technological advancements, analysts say, although this specific weaponry might not have significant ramifications beyond the Korean Peninsula.
“It really will not add significant capabilities for the alliance,” Maxwell said. “I expect the ROK will want to employ this capability as part of its kill chain concept to target North Korean missiles prior to launch.”
That development comes as Western officials see a growing nuclear threat from both China and North Korea.
“China’s nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding … without any limitation or constraint. And with a complete lack of transparency,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday at a NATO conference on arms control. “There are also other players fielding nuclear weapons and advanced missile systems. North Korea and Iran, for example, are blatantly ignoring or breaking the global rules and spreading dangerous technology.”
In that context, the limitations of the new missile, it reportedly has a range of 500 km and evokes a tendency in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s team that disappoints some U.S strategists.
“The South Koreans have become so focused on North Korea, and particularly under Moon, that has come at the expense of being seen in the United States … as a larger regional partner,” said American Foreign Policy Council senior fellow Alex Gray, who worked as White House National Security Council chief of staff during President Donald Trump’s tenure. “They’re punching below their weight on China competition, and the narrative is beginning to take hold in Washington that they’re kind of a one-trick pony.”
South Korean foreign policy calculations are complicated by the country’s economic dependence on China, which used that leverage to retaliate over Seoul’s decision to deploy a missile defense system that featured a radar potentially capable of detecting not only North Korean missiles but Chinese launches.
“As long as the threat from the north exists, we should not expect a large ROK contribution off the peninsula,” Maxwell said. “It would be foolish to detract from ROK capabilities on the peninsula. And the ROK has been walking the tightrope between China (its largest trading partner) and the U.S., its security partner.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke