South Korea has pledged to develop new missiles "with significantly enhanced destructive power" to deter the North, as it unveiled a new military blueprint with increased budgets for defence.
The plan sets aside 315.2 trillion won (S$366 billion) over the next five years for defence spending, marking a 5.8 per cent year-on-year increase on average for 2022 to 2026, according to the Defence Ministry yesterday. About 66 per cent of the budget will be spent on management of the forces, and the rest on improving defence capabilities.
"We will develop stronger, longer-range and more precise missiles so as to exercise deterrence and achieve security and peace on the Korean peninsula," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
Also included are plans to upgrade missile defence systems and deploy new interceptors against long-range missiles.
South Korean politicians have long pushed for freedom to develop more powerful missiles but it is possible only now, after the country's security ally, the United States, agreed in May to terminate restrictions that had barred the South from developing or possessing ballistic missiles with a flight range of more than 800km.
The guidelines were introduced in 1979, when the US agreed to share missile technology with South Korea to help it develop missiles as deterrence against the North, but limited the power of those missiles to prevent an uncontrollable arms race.
So while North Korea has gone as far as developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland, South Korea's biggest missile is only the Hyunmoo-4, a short-range ballistic missile that can carry a two-tonne warhead and fly up to 800km.
It was first tested in May last year, with the aim of destroying North Korea's command and control facilities if needed.
Unnamed sources cited by Yonhap news agency said South Korea is now in the final stages of completing a "massive ballistic missile as powerful as a tactical nuclear weapon", and its deployment date will be decided after test-firing.
The missile is said to be able to fly 350km to 400km and can carry a warhead of up to three tonnes.
When completed, the new missile will likely play an important role in South Korea's defence system against the North. In the event of an attack, South Korea will launch the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan aimed at incapacitating North Korea's leadership.
The new missile is designed to destroy underground facilities that North Korea uses to store nuclear weapons, according to sources.
The Hyunmoo-4, meanwhile, is aimed at the North's command centre and military facilities.
"Following the termination of the (missile) guidelines, we will exercise deterrence against potential threats and improve strike capabilities against main targets," the Defence Ministry statement said.
Some experts have warned against an inevitable arms race on the Korean peninsula and that China could be upset if South Korea expands its missile strike range on to its land.
Dr Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies noted that China was already angry when South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed at his summit with US President Joe Biden in May to work together on issues pertaining to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, areas where China is asserting its sovereignty.
"China will not like this," he told The Straits Times, referring to South Korea's announcement of plans to develop stronger missiles. "But China will restrain itself because it still needs to stop South Korea from going all the way with the US and Japan in curbing China. South Korea is still the weakest link."