SEOUL – Pride and jealousy have led North and South Korea to participate in propaganda screaming contests and argue over who could build a higher flagpole on their border. Now that one-upmanship reinforces a much more dangerous side of their rivalry: the arms race.
Earlier this month, South Korea’s dream of building its own supersonic fighter was realized when the KF-21, which was developed for $ 7.8 billion, was unveiled. The country recently announced plans to acquire dozens of new American attack helicopters. When President Moon Jae-in visited the Department of Defense’s Defense Development Agency last year, he said South Korea had “developed a short-range ballistic missile with one of the largest warheads in the world.”
In contrast to North Korea, there is a lack of nuclear weapons in the south. But in recent years the country has sped up its military spending, sourcing American stealth jets, and building increasingly powerful conventional missiles that can target North Korean missile facilities and war bunkers.
The impoverished North has used these moves to justify expanding its own arsenal and threatened to dump its short-range nuclear warhead missiles and make them more difficult to intercept. Experts warn that the ensuing arms race between the two countries threatens the delicate balance of peace on the Korean peninsula.
“If both sides act and respond in the name of national defense by building weapons, it will create a vicious circle that will ultimately undermine their defenses and deepen their security dilemma,” said Jang Cheol-wun, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded research group .
The two Koreans have long been embroiled in an eternal arms race. But Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities, coupled with fears of American troops withdrawing from South Korea under President Donald J. Trump, added to these tensions.
During his tenure, Mr. Moon has increased South Korea’s annual military spending by an average of 7 percent, compared to his predecessor’s average of 4.1 percent. After diplomacy failed to eradicate the north’s nuclear arsenal, Mr. Moon had to reassure South Koreans that their country was not a “sitting duck,” said Yoon Suk-joon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.
Shortly after Mr. Moon’s visit to the Defense Development Agency, South Korean media reported that the weapon he was referring to was the Hyunmoo-4, a missile that was tested last year. According to missile experts, the Hyunmoo-4 can fly 4,497 miles, enough to attack all of North Korea. Its two-ton payload – unusually large for a short-range missile – could destroy the underground missile bases in the north.
Whether it could destroy the deep bunkers that Kim Jong-un, the leader of the north, would retreat into in wartime, depends on how deep they are buried. According to missile experts, South Korea would likely need penetrating nuclear weapons from the US to destroy such valuable targets.
Not to be outdone, North Korea launched its own new ballistic missile on March 25 and said the gun had flown 372 miles with a 2.5-ton warhead. The test prompted Mr. Moon to claim the following day that South Korea had “world-class missile capabilities sufficient to defend us while we honor our commitment to make the Korean peninsula nuclear-free”.
Washington has tried for decades to prevent missiles from spreading across the Korean peninsula. Under the guidelines, first passed between Washington and Seoul in 1979, South Korea was prohibited from developing ballistic missiles with a range of more than 187 miles and a payload of more than 1,100 pounds. After North Korea hit a South Korean island with rocket fire in 2010, South Korea urged Washington to ease restrictions in order to build stronger missiles.
“We have indicated that we could unilaterally remove the missile guidelines,” said Chun Yung-woo, the national security advisor at the time. “We told the Americans that if we didn’t deal with the growing nuclear and missile threats in the north, more and more South Koreans would be calling for nuclear bombs to be built for themselves.”
In 2012, Washington agreed to allow South Korea to deploy ballistic missiles with a range of up to 497 miles, as long as the 1,100 pound warhead limits were met. It was also said that South Korea could exceed the payload limit for shorter-range missiles many times over.
South Korea has since tested missiles with increasing range and larger warheads, including the Hyunmoo-2A, Hyunmoo-2B, and Hyunmoo-2C. When North Korea launched its first ICBM in 2017, Mr Trump lifted the payload limit entirely and made way for the Hyunmoo-4.
Since taking power a decade ago, Mr. Kim has tried to build ICBMs capable of reaching the United States. But he has also threatened to overturn the rocket balance against South Korea.
In January, he said his country had already built short-range nuclear missiles against South Korea and promised to improve them by making the warheads “smaller, lighter and more tactical.” South Korea’s deterrent strategy is based on the conviction that the best chance against the North without its own nuclear weapons is to build up conventional missile defense and use increasingly powerful “bunker-busters”, for which Kim is afraid of his life.
When North Korea tested its ICBM in 2017, the US and South Korea responded by launching their own ballistic missiles to demonstrate their ability to deliver precision on deep hits. In his book “Rage,” journalist Bob Woodward wrote that the American rocket had traveled the exact distance between its launch point and the location from which Mr. Kim observed its ICBM launch.
Mr Kim stopped all missile testing in 2018, the year of the first of his two summits with Mr Trump. After their talks broke down, North Korea resumed testing in 2019, deploying three short-range ballistic missiles designed to counter the Allied missile defense capabilities.
North Korea’s old fleet of Scud and Rodong missiles used liquid fuel and was not precise enough. The country’s new generation of missiles use solid propellants, making them faster to fire, easier to transport, and more difficult to aim. They also have greater accuracy and evasive maneuverability that could confuse the southern missile defense systems.
The new North Korea solid-state ballistic missile, which was tested in March, likely dodged Allied radar during their low-altitude maneuvers, leading the South Korean military to estimate its range at 280 miles, not the 372 miles the north is claimed, said Chang Young-Keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University. Mr. Chang said the missile could also likely increase range and warhead weight as it is powered by “the largest solid fuel rocket motor developed and tested in North Korea to date.”
The ICBMs of the north still use liquid fuel, which takes hours to load before starting. This makes them vulnerable to American pre-emptive strikes. However, in his January speech, Mr. Kim vowed to build solid fuel ICBMs, which is an even greater challenge for American missile defense. Such prospects add to the fear of some South Koreans that Washington would be less likely to intervene if it were also exposed to a possible North Korean nuclear attack.