Seoul, South Korea – South Korea is now free to develop missiles of any payload and range it chooses after an agreement last month between US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
But the move, announced after the May 21 summit of the two White House leaders, introduced new security risks surrounding South Korea’s missile development and some analysts were concerned about the potential effects on the region. wider.
The South Korean military already has state-of-the-art missile technology, although it was previously restricted to 800 kilometers, its researcher Daniel Bong of the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies told Al Jazeera. . The question is whether the South Korean government wants to join the exclusive club of states that own long-range missiles.
“It’s one thing to have no shackles for missile development, but it’s another to go all the way with the risk of going in the wrong direction with China,” Bong said.
South Korea has gone in the wrong direction with China with missiles before, when it did agreed to deploy the High Altitude Zone Defense (THAAD), a US missile defense system in 2017.
In response, Beijing imposed scathing sanctions.
South Korean government-affiliated analysts, as well as officials from the Moon administration, have suggested that China has an understanding of South Korea’s outlook on the release of the missile guide, which Seoul has described as ” regaining missile sovereignty “.
But U.S. missile plans could still pose problems for South Korea.
In August 2019, the US retired of the Medium Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Later, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper suggested that the United States would be looking to deploy mid-range ballistic missiles, IRBMs, in the Asia Pacific region.
“South Korea could be the place, which would be a disaster when it comes to managing our relationship with neighboring countries and, of course, with China,” senior researcher Sung Ki-young told Al Jazeera. the National Security Strategy Institute.
The key will be to what extent South Korea chooses with its missiles.
“By developing missiles with a longer range that can reach China’s major cities, South Korea will have less resistance to the deployment of U.S. missiles that could be aimed at China,” Bonse de Yonsei said earlier. to specify: “I’m talking about nuclear missiles.”
Some worry that missile development freedom will bring China and North Korea closer together.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the North Korean ambassador to Beijing just after the Biden-Moon summit.
“They showed their family ties … As the US-South Korea alliance strengthens, relations between North Korea and China will also strengthen,” the director of the Peace Network told Al Jazeera of Seoul, Cheong Wook-sik.
The missile guidelines agreement also exposed the United States to charges of hypocrisy, with its continued support for UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea.
“The United States has 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 only this kind of alleged double standards, along with the recovery of large-scale joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea that could see the security atmosphere deteriorate.
“If this exercise is done the joint South Korean-US exercise, North Korea can respond by resuming medium- and long-range missile testing,” Cheong said.
“Stop playing with fire”
The relaxation of the missile guidelines was one of several agreements concluded by the Biden and Moon administrations in May.
The United States also provides 550,000 South Korean troops with vaccines, apparently to protect the 28,500 members of the U.S. forces working alongside it, while Biden supported President Moon’s initiative to build peace with North Korea, though Moon only had nine months left in office.
In return, Moon also approached the United States in relation to China: the joint statement “emphasizes (d) the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
But some have suggested that what appeared to be equal compensation offered the United States more geopolitical advantages.
“The Moon Jae-in government was sold by the Biden administration, which turned out to be skilled in negotiation, because the Moon Jae-in government seemed so desperate,” Bong said of Yonsei.
President Moon is the third South Korean progressive leader in a line to seek peace and unification on the Korean peninsula, after Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung, and President Roh Moo-hyun, under which President Moon served as chief of staff.
In recent times, South Korea has tried to balance itself between Beijing and Washington.
Economically, Beijing rules. In 2003, it surpassed the U.S. as South Korea’s largest trading partner and now accounts for more than a quarter of its exports, more than $ 125 billion annually.
Meanwhile, it is the United States, with its military bases and the so-called “nuclear umbrella,” that guarantees South Korea’s security as China has become increasingly assertive, with frequent incursions into exclusive economic zones. of South Korea, Taiwan and the nations surrounding the South China Sea.
On the reference to the Taiwan Strait in the Biden-Moon joint statement, Beijing responded quickly, and its Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian later said at a briefing, “Relevant countries. .. they should stop playing with fire “.
“One less excuse”
As for the missile guidelines, Beijing has so far been a bit off and North Korea has offered only a relatively moderate response: an article published in the state media headlined the movement “a total reminder of the US hostile policy towards the DPRK and its embarrassing double deal“.
But analysts pointed to the implications of other elements of the Biden-Moon summit agreement and the possible revival of joint military exercises that North Korea sees as a rehearsal for the invasion.
South Korean peace activists have blamed the war games for igniting tensions, and the Moon administration has tried to suspend joint exercises – or at least mitigate them – to build goodwill with Pyongyang.
But in his confirmation hearing to become the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, General Paul LeCamera said the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises were “extremely important to prepare for.” , with the delivery of vaccines to South Korean and US forces, “the Moon The Jae-in government is left with one less excuse to continuously suspend annual joint military exercises with US forces in South Korea” , said Bong of Yonsei.
Despite the challenges, some of the Moon administration are optimistic that the Biden summit will lead to progress in peacebuilding in North Korea, despite the relative lame duck condition of the South Korean president.
During his briefing at the end of his visit to Moon’s White House, Biden referred to North Korea under his official name, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and more significantly, Biden introduced an envoy. special for North Korea, veteran US diplomat and negotiator, Kim sang.
Moon himself suggested that the appointment indicated the U.S. willingness to engage North Korea, and later told lawmakers that “the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the DPRK is tantamount to making a public request for Korea to of the North to resume dialogue “.
Sung Kim plans 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 hold trilateral talks with Japanese representatives. This may be awkward when Tokyo turned down a meeting with South Korean officials at the recent Group of Seven (G7) summit in Cornwall and the three countries have very different perspectives on how to deal with North Korea.
The South Korean president has long advocated unconditional commitment, while the United States and Japan have defended more falcon strategies relying on continued sanctions.
As the rivalry between the US and China intensifies, it is likely that South Korea’s attempt to pursue its own project with respect to North Korea will become increasingly dangerous.