Joshua PollackSouth Korea’s “Main Enemy”

In the last few years, South Korea has gone back and forth over whether to describe the North as “the main enemy.” At one level, the words are immaterial; it’s painfully obvious whose army is lined up on the other side of the DMZ. (Hint: not Burkina Faso’s.) But at another level, calling the DPRK the enemy actually might serve as a helpful clarification for decision-makers in Seoul.

All of this is by way of drawing attention to a small discrepancy in recent media reports about the Hyunmu-3C ground-launched cruise missile, described by anonymous ROK defense officials as having a range of 1,500 km. The Chosun Ilbo calls it the successor to cruise missiles of 500 km and 1,000 km range, and explains,

The Hyunmu-3C brings North Korean nuclear and other major facilities like Scud and Rodong missile bases in South Pyongan, Kangwon, and South Hamgyong Provinces within range of the South Korean Army.

There’s just one small problem. There’s no place in North Korea more than 500 km from the DMZ. And there are no two points on the Korean peninsula more than 1,000 km apart. What a 1,500-km weapon brings into range is, mainly, downtown Tokyo.

What such a weapon costs to develop, test, manufacture, deploy, and maintain, I don’t know, but it’s probably insufficient to purchase a sense of equality with Korea’s former colonial master. Maybe some plutonium would do the trick?

Then again, perhaps the underlying sentiment is not about mere equality. As the Chosun declares,

Only six other countries — the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China and Israel — have cruise missiles with a range of more than 500 km, and only three — the U.S., Russia and Israel — have missiles with a range of 1,500 km or more.

It’s hard to say whether these two lists are accurate, but accuracy isn’t the point. The point is which country doesn’t appear on either list.

I’d love to hear that the description of the weapon’s range is in error, but suspect that it’s not.

An aside: this is not the first time we’ve heard of the Hyunmu-3 or Hyunmoo-III family of cruise missiles, earlier called Chonryong. Either word translates to, “There’s no word for this in Japanese.” Or not yet.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    1,000 km for South Korea makes excellent sense, vis a vis North Korea… it allows basing missiles in the southern tip of South Korea and flying overwater paths for nearly all the flight up to targets in North Korea, all the way up to the Chinese Border. This makes North Korea’s air defense problem nearly insoluble and counterforce attacks on the South Korean missile bases very hard.

    1,500 km straight line from mid to southern South Korea includes effectively all of Japan (a nonzero but very low probability target), most of the interesting areas of Russia north of and including Vladivostok (a slightly higher potential target), most of western China south as far as the bases which face Taiwan (a somewhat more potential target), and some islands out in the Pacific that the US is on (a reasonably unlikely target). Oh, and Taiwan itself (also reasonably unlikely).

    1,000 km is clearly militarily useful from a route planning perspective and North Korea, who regardless of how you label them are obviously the main credible adversary for South Korea. 1,500 km is a political missile; it’s beyond what you need for North Korea, so it’s for deterring (most likely) China, or in the case of another war and Chinese intervention, attacking lines of communications feeding in-theatre. 1,500 km is also placing themselves on a military playing field to get China to pay more attention to them. There’s no real serious modern South Korea / China tension per se that I know of, but Chinese support for NK is something that SK would find value in deterring.

    • Nick Nolan (History)

      I think you miscalculate Korean enmity and mistrust against Japan (Both South and North). They just want to be sure they have technological means to match all Japanese ambitions that may or may not arise. I’m 100% certain that if Japan ever decides to join the nuclear club, South Korea will follow instantly.

      There is another scenario. If DPRK collapses suddenly, there is real possibility that they launch attack against Japan as their last act. Submarine with nuclear bomb, and some missiles with nerve gas, could be their last act of face saving defiance before they surrender to South. There would be many people in the South who would nod their heads silently. If this kind of scenario happens, South wants to be able to stay firm and prevent retaliations against both Koreas.

      Pictures about Japan made by South Korean kids:

    • Inst (History)

      I would be flattered if specialists on Korean politics would weigh in on what happened between ’08 and ’10, but according to various polls Koreans are now very positive towards Japan and many Japanese feel the same way. Perhaps it was the end of LDP dominance and the first real establishment of DPJ control in the Diet? The former PM Hatoyama, for example, has been mocked as a deluded Pan-Asianist, but these tendencies play well with foreign nationalists with a grudge.

      I agree with Mr. Pollack, however, that at the time of commission Korean anti-Japanese sentiment ran high. That is the most likely reason research was started on a 1,500 km missile.

  2. Mike Plunkett (History)

    On the face of it, having a 1500km cruise missile in a theatre that requires at most 1000km range does seem…anomalous. However, thinking about it, the added margin does allow a lot more flexibility in terms of routing your missiles to avoid, misdirect and confuse air defences. It could also benefit a TERCOM guided missile, allowing to fly over more navigation reference points, but I don’t know if the South Koreans would have access to such technology or the data to support it.

  3. Andy (History)


    Precise range numbers for cruise missiles are very misleading. What does this 1500km represent? A “maximum” range that assumes a straight-line flight with under optimal parameters? Something more realistic – an “operational” range? If so, then what are the assumptions? Point being is that actual cruise missile ranges are highly variable depending on the particular mission flight profile.

    Secondly, cruise missiles do not fly straight to targets. The range ring graphic is therefore also misleading. I did a quick test in Google Earth and arbitrarily picked Kunsan Air Base in South Korea as a launch point and the Yongbyon complex in North Korea as a target. LOS range is 440km. A near-coastal course over the Yellow Sea then up Ch’ongch’on and Kuryong Rivers is more like 600km. A course further out into the Yellow Sea to avoid coastal radar coverage is more like 700km. So, in this example, actual range is about 50% greater than LOS range even though both the launch and target locations are near the coast and most of the flight is over water where flight parameters are more easily optimized.

    Once you start looking at some of the interior mountainous areas of North Korea, and the actual distance necessary to reach those areas using a realistic low-level flight profile, 1500km begins to sound more reasonable.

  4. Pirouz (History)

    Iran reportedly has the Kh-55, but they weren’t mentioned on the list (either).

  5. John Dailey (History)

    I think Koreans on both sides of the DMZ traditionally view the Japanese as their main enemy. It makes sense to them to target large population centers in Japan to deter a US attack. Unstable thinking is the mothers milk of DPRK thinking and politics for the last 50+ years. The Kim Il Sung regime and then later his son…Kim Jong Il likes to play the crazy aunt in the basement geo-politically. We should sign a formal peace to end the Korean War and let the North and the South work things out on their own.

  6. Peter Crail (History)

    And the South Korean media is still pretending the MTCR 300km/500kg restriction doesn’t cover cruise missiles:

    “However, the regime does not restrict the development of a long-range cruise missile as long as its warhead does not weigh more than 500 kilograms. Thus, the military has been focusing on the development of the cruise missiles such as the Hyunmu series.”

    huh? I’m no rocket scientist by a long shot but if you have no limits on the range side of the ratio, limits on the other wouldn’t really mean very much. And that’s not what the MTCR says anyway.

    Not to mention this continues to go against slightly better terms under their 2001 agreement with the U.S. allowing them to join the MTCR in which they agreed to a 500km/500kg limit:

    “Yet, the United States allowed South Korea the option of pursuing cruise missile development to what the United States thought would be a maximum range of 500 kilometers, as long as the payload was under 500 kilograms.”

    Of course, we didn’t exactly expect them to keep to that limit anyway:

    “A former State Department official familiar with the South Korean-U.S. negotiations said Aug. 25 that Washington did not trust Seoul to abide by the guidelines on missile limitations.”

    …And I thought we had resolved our “beef” with them:

  7. Inst (History)

    This is the Japanese language article of the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper.:

    It features the term 怌ēŽ„ę­¦3A怍, which refers to both the missile and a creature in East Asian mythology, the Black Tortoise of the North. The Hyun-moo name seems to be the Korean pronunciation of the Sinograms, so the postscript on the blogger’s original post is not completely accurate. The Chonryong missile probably refers to the Azure Dragon of the East, which is another cardinal direction guardian.

    Further, regarding South Korean antipathy towards Japan; while I previously delighted in correcting South Korean alignments towards China and Japan, most recently surveys have shown that South Koreans are vaguely positive or at least ambivalent about Japan, while deeply suspicious of China.

    According to this BBC poll, surprisingly, a significant majority of South Koreans now have a positive opinion of Japan, while an even more significant majority of South Koreans now have a negative opinion of China. A further Pew Global survey taken in Spring 2010 shows a significant majority of South Koreans negative on China.

    While in the past, I’ve maintained that South Koreans feel more threatened by Japan than China, it seems that the situation has reversed significantly, in part due to events in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From this extension, it’s perfectly possible that the South Korean development of IRBM-ranged cruise missiles may be oriented at China, not merely at North Korea or primarily at Japan.

    In this sense, then, South Korea may potentially prove to be a better security partner for the United States than Japan. Although Japan has an advanced technological base, with many composites for American aerospace built in Japan, it has an extremely poor demographic profile, unusually high levels of debt, and political paralysis. Given that South Korea seems more healthy as a nation than Japan, and has an active military threat to its northern border, I think it may be reasonable to expect an American refocusing towards South Korea in the next few decades.

    I would like to ask you what you make out of Donald Kirk’s analysis of South Korean motivations under the current administration, which argues that the Lee Myung Bak administration has been extremely pro-US and anti-North Korea with a desire to completely reverse his predecessor’s sunshine policy. In this theory, Myung attempted to use the Cheonan sinking to galvanize South Korean support for a more confrontational North Korea policy, but failed, with ambivalent South Korean public reactions and an eventually lukewarm Security Council response.

  8. joshua (History)

    My apologies for the delays in moderation. Unfortunately, I’m not always available during the day. Busy hatching plots, or something.

    I take the point raised by several commenters about cruise missile range. In a sense, it’s more like the combat radius of an aircraft than like the range of a ballistic missile. However, I also note that 2009 coverage of the 1,000-km Hyunmu-3B says basically the same thing about its capabilities as the latest reports say about the new 1,500-km Hyunmu-3C, leading one to wonder what the point might be:

    “The missile, a modified variant of the Hyunmoo missile, is capable of reaching as far as Beijing and Tokyo, as well as hitting key targets in the entire North Korean territory, they said.”

    But perhaps another way of looking at it is that the point of the program is to match North Korean capabilities, as if to say, “See, we’re just as good at threatening the neighbors as Pyongyang is.”

    Either way, the military utility is not 100% obvious.

    Inst’s observations about South Korean qualms about China are very interesting. I’d just observe that this weapons system appears to have entered development before 2008, and it’s always dicey to try to connect acquisition decisions to shifts in public opinion.

  9. Lance (History)

    Range might not be the only factor useful to consider, perhaps time in flight should be considered as well. A 1500 km range means a certain additional amount of time is available while in flight for perhaps revised target acquisition or negotiation. Just a suggestion.

  10. joshua (History)

    Here’s another article on the subject, describing the HM-3C as more accurate than its predecessors.

  11. John Schilling (History)

    Lance: both target acquisition and negotiation are best done on the ground. Most land-attack cruise missiles do not even have a provision for in-flight target or mission updates, and if they do it will not be nearly as efficient or reliable as having the missile still hardwired to the fire-control computer on the launch platform. Generally the best results come from minimizing the time between launch and impact, from launching at the last possible moment with the most up-to-date knowledge about the target.

    A thousand kilometers of range to give flexibility in basing and routing within the Korean peninsula is plausible. Fifteen hundred kilometers doesn’t mean someone is planning to have the missile fly in circles for half an hour while they make up their mind; it means they are looking at potential targets more than a thousand kilometers away.

    Which as has been noted, is not entirely unreasonable for South Korea to do.

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