In response to North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear-weapons program, President Donald Trump has promised to lift some restrictions on the kinds of weapons South Korea can buy from the United States, as well as develop on its own.
More accurately, Trump is continuing the process President Barack Obama began in 2012 with the aim of loosening limits on the range and explosive power of South Korea’s non-nuclear rockets, with which Seoul plans to blast the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in the event of war.
In that sense, Trump’s pledge might not amount to much. “It’s really unclear if there’s anything here beyond the usual bluster,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast.
On Sept. 3, North Korea successfully tested a hydrogen bomb small enough to fit inside one of the country’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The H-bomb test was the latest in a chain of nuclear provocations by North Korea. And it prompted Trump’s vow to lavish new and better weapons on U.S. allies in East Asia.
“I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 5.
For Seoul, that means somewhat more powerful non-nuclear rockets. During a Sept. 3 call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump “gave his in-principle approval to South Korea’s initiative to lift restriction on their missile payload capabilities,” according to the U.S. State Department.
But as long ago as five years ago, Obama signaled the United States’ intention to end the restrictions on South Korea’s rockets under the international Missile Technology Control Regime. The United States and other world powers formed the regime in 1987 in order to slow the spread of missile technology. The accord specifies voluntary limits on both nuclear and conventionally tipped rockets.
South Korea joined the regime in 2001, initially agreeing to deploy non-nuclear rockets that can fly no farther than 300 kilometers, around 190 miles, while carrying warheads no heavier than 500 kilograms, or 1,100 pounds. Seoul possesses two broad categories of military rockets—U.S.-made MGM-140s and domestically produced Hyunmoo models.
The 2001 missile caps did not seriously curtail Seoul’s military strategy. In the event of war with the North, the South Korean military plans to quickly bombard Pyongyang with conventional MGM-140 and Hyunmoo rockets, specifically aiming to kill or isolate senior leaders. “If Seoul comes under attack, the top levels of North Korea’s regime including Kim Jong Un could become targets,” a South Korean military source told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
Pyongyang lies fewer than 200 kilometers—about 120 miles—from Seoul, putting the North Korean capital well within range of even the oldest South Korean rockets. In 2012, Seoul and Washington amended South Korea’s missile rules, extending the maximum range out to 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, in order to allow South Korean forces to also bombard more remote military facilities in the North.
At the same time, there was talk of lifting the restriction on warhead size. But for Seoul, the need for bigger warheads was apparently less urgent than was the need for rockets possessing greater range.
That’s consistent with broad trends in military rocketry. The U.S. Army has worked hard to extend the MGM-140’s range from just 128 kilometers, or 80 miles, to 500 kilometers/310 miles in the latest version. Some older MGM-140 boast 226-kilogram/500-pound warheads, but the latest models actually have smaller warheads in order to shrink the munition’s overall size and devote more payload to fuel.
As Trump continues Obama’s policy of allowing South Korea to buy and develop more powerful rockets, the end result for Seoul is a marginally better ability to retaliate—with non-nuclear weaponry—against a conventional or nuclear attack by North Korea.
But Trump is not promising Seoul decisive new weaponry that stands any chance of significantly altering the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula—to say nothing of deterring North Korea from continuing its nuclear-weapons program.