South Korea’s Hyunmoo: A Guardian of the Northern Sky or its Destroyer?
On 1 October 2013, South Korea held an impressive military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the founding of its armed forces, seen by many as a visible warning to deter provocations from North Korea. During the parade, South Korea publicly displayed for the first time newly locally-developed cruise missiles: the Hyunmoo-2, with a range of 500 kilometres, and the Hyunmoo-3, with a range of 1,000 kilometres.
Hyunmoo: Building South Korea Response to the North
Hyunmoo (Hangul: 현무, literally means “Guardian of the Northern Sky“) refers to a series of missiles developed and deployed by South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development. The origin of the ballistic programme for these series can be traced to 1982, when it was first successfully tested.
The programme however did not developed swiftly due to internal political issues and US interference in keeping under control the process, and during the 90’s was almost abandoned. However, a new era started in 2000 and the programme resumed mainly due to the North Korean increased hostility.
The new Hyunmoo missiles were slightly different from the original project, although developed from them, and classed as improved versions of Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles in response to North Korea’s Scud-B and Nodong-1 missiles. The Nike Hercules-based missiles had a range of only 180-300 kilometres, but with increased speed for a fast response.
The programme, along with the tests, accelerated from 2003 when South Korea reported to the US the wish to proceed with the development of a cruise missile programme. The new programme developed a land-attack missile codenamed Cheon Ryong (Sky Dragon) or Hyunmoo, with the first test on 25 October 2006. The new test series included a missile called “Eagle-1” or Hyunmoo 3A, with a range of 500 kilometres, and an “Eagle-2” or Hyunmoo 3B, with a range of 1,000 kilometres. A third model, called Hyunmoo 3C or “Eagle-3“, would be capable of striking its target up to 1,500 kilometres away. In 2009, the Hyunmoo series was upgraded with the versions 2A and 2B capable of a range of 300 and 500 Km, and the series 3A and 3B with a range of 500 and 1000 km.
The last stage of development came in April 2012 when South Korean army Major General Shin Won-sik, announced that South Korea was deploying a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea. It is widely considered that General Shin was referring to the Hyunmoo 3C with a range estimated in 1,000-1500 km. This new cruise missile was recently unveiled, named Hyunmoo-3, it is very similar to the American Tomahawk and has an increased range of 1,500 km.
Hyunmoo Missiles (Model, Range and Derivation)
Hyunmoo-1, 180 km, modified Baekgom
Hyunmoo-2A, 300 km, modified Hyunmoo-1 and SS-21
Hyunmoo-2B, 500 km, modified Hyunmoo-2A
Hyunmoo-3A, 500 km
Hyunmoo-3B, 1,000 km, modified Hyunmoo-3A
Hyunmoo-3C, 1,500 km, modified Hyunmoo-3B
Analysis: A Message Beyond Pyongyang
South Korea had joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2001, but this did not prohibit members from producing such missiles. The agreement with the US prior to 2001 prevented South Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction, and they never agreed to the development of long-range missiles. The US policy had generally been cautious in avoiding an escalation in the peninsula and tried to keep South Korean defences as strong as a possible instead. However, it is now clear that not only the South Koreans developed these missiles in contrast with the US, but also that these are not a defensive measure. The new missile is able to reach not only North Korea but also Japan, China and Russia. Therefore a question arises, what is the real message and significance of the South Korean move?
South Korea’s display of power represents a clear signal that tensions in the Korean peninsula are only dormant and in first instance it is clear the message sent to Pyongyang: South Korea has the capability to develop an indigenous ballistic technology, and it is also capable to defend itself. Often North Korea claimed its advantage on the basis of the superior ballistic armament and a nationalist pride in producing these weapons with local engineering. One of main accusations from the Stalinist regime is to depict South Korea and Japan as “stooges of the American imperialism”, two puppets unable to defend themselves without Washington support. This parade was therefore a signal to Pyongyang that a power display is not an exclusive Kim’s dynasty mark, and that Seoul will respond accordingly to any threat from the North.
Nevertheless, there is more than a North Korean counter-propaganda display, as it also signals a change in US policy towards South Korea. It represents an “all clear” from Washington to the development of new armaments and it is a message that South Korea can also strike the North without US intervention. It seems that this “koreanisation” of the issue, by shifting towards an intra-Korean armament race, will also highlight the dangers that will inevitably arise at next tension between the two Korea. An armament race will endanger, instead of stabilise, the peninsula and whilst North Korea will not renounce in building its nuclear deterrent, the risk is that South Korean steps toward a ballistic counterbalance will increase the risk of confrontation, therefore making nearly impossible the task of demilitarisation. If we add that skirmishes and military incident are not uncommon, mostly due to Pyongyang’s recklessness, the South renewed power could back fire by escalating a conflict of disastrous consequences.
Nonetheless, the new display inevitably has also a third dimension: anger indirectly the other main power in the dispute, China. Although China is the main ally of North Korea, and it is clear that it will not certainly risk a war for the “tantrums” of this unhappy child, it is also true that Beijing sees the Asian-Pacific area as its sphere of influence. An increasing American interest and military building has been noted in recent years. This has been done in two ways: direct shifting of military resources and strengthening traditional allies. The US have clearly appeased all countries involved in the South China Sea, by strengthening their military forces: Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Philippines. This latest move by Seoul it is also a message to China that Washington is acting behind the scene by building a powerful containment that from Japan links to South East Asia, where recent changes in US policy lead to renewed talks with Vietnam and further than this area, with Chinese arch-enemy India.
The Hyunmoo, by including Pyongyang within range, it has also the effect to attract a wider area that inevitably demonstrate that the Korean peninsula is a stage of a much larger battlefield involving several powers that could erupt in the near future.