South Korea has recently started negotiations with the United States on extending the range of its ballistic missiles beyond the permitted 300 kilometers. The talks, though belated, should be welcomed. Still better, the United States is reportedly more receptive to South Korean demands than in the past.
South Korea’s efforts to develop a new generation of ballistic missiles as a deterrent against North Korean hostilities have been hamstrung by the restrictions imposed under the U.S.-fashioned Missile Technology Control Regime. Under a 2001 agreement with the United States, South Korea was permitted to develop ballistic missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers ― a range not long enough to cover the entire North Korean territory. The payload was limited to 500 kilograms.
Since Pyongyang launched a Taepodong-2 missile capable of a range of 6,700 kilometers in April 2009, South Korea has strenuously demanded that the permissible range be extended to 1,000 kilometers to cover the entire North Korean territory from any place in the South. It has also demanded a payload capacity be expanded as well. But the request has fallen on deaf ears, with Washington concerned about the risk of missile proliferation.
True, South Korea has developed cruise missiles capable of targeting any military installation in the North. But the problem is that they are slower and less powerful than ballistic missiles and exposed to a greater risk of being intercepted, military experts say.
Moreover, North Korea is reportedly in the process of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach West Coast of the United States. The earlier the communist state’s missile capabilities are put in check, the better it will be for the United States as well as South Korea.
There is no predicting an outcome of the ongoing missile negotiations that are in their initial stage. But it goes without saying that South Korea needs to hold missiles with greater military capabilities in its possession as an effective deterrent against North Korean missile attacks.
It is all the more important for South Korea to arm itself with more powerful ballistic missiles because the North is emboldened to engage in unprovoked acts of hostility, as it did when it torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel in March and bombarded a South Korean island in an artillery attack in November.
Given North Korea’s formidable missile capacity, the South Korean request for permission to develop a ballistic missile with a range of 1,000 kilometers and a payload of 1,000 kilograms is nothing but realistic. Denying the South permission is little different from forcing it to fight with one hand tied behind its back.