The Korea Herald


Seoul cautiously optimistic on missile range extension

By Korea Herald

Published : May 16, 2012 - 20:50

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Uncertainty still lingers as Washington seems divided over S. Korea’s missile capability

South Korea is cautiously optimistic over the prospect of revising a ballistic missile pact with the U.S. to have longer-range capabilities to bolster deterrence against North Korea, a government source said Wednesday.

But as opinion appears divided within a Washington government that has spearheaded the global agenda of non-proliferation and arms control, uncertainty still lingers over the outcome of the recent bilateral consultations on the issue, the source said.

The allies’ ministers of defense and foreign affairs are expected to discuss the revision and other security issues when they meet at the “Two Plus Two” talks in Washington around in mid-June, Seoul officials said.

“The government is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of the allies reaching an agreement to extend the range. The issue for now is how much longer we can extend the range,” the source told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.

“But there is still uncertainty as the U.S. government still appears split over it. It has yet to finalize its direction on this issue.”

Under a 2001 revision to the initial agreement, signed in 1979, Seoul is banned from developing ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers. But it does not restrict the range of cruise missiles, which are much slower and easier to intercept.

It also stipulates that a payload must weigh no more than 500 kilograms to block the development of nuclear warheads.

Seoul has pushed for the range extension as Pyongyang has continued to enhance its missile capabilities. It also moved fast considering the Washington government may have less flexibility over the sensitive issue ahead of the presidential election in November.

The U.S. has been reluctant over the range extension as it could undermine its non-proliferation initiatives. Its State and Defense Departments apparently have different positions: diplomats tend to favor non-proliferation while the military brass wants stronger combined forces on the Korean Peninsula.

Military experts say that the range should be at least 800 kilometers for South Korean units in non-frontline areas to put all core military targets in the North within striking range.

They compared the missile pact to “shackles” as Pyongyang has continued to enhance its missile performance. The communist state’s rocket launch last month backed this claim, though it exploded minutes after lift-off.

“South Korea is a sovereign nation. We don’t need to have such a restriction on our sovereign right (of defense),” said Kim Tae-hyun, professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University.

Kim pointed out that being able to develop longer-range missiles, and developing and deploying them for operational use are separate issues.

“(After revising the pact to allow South Korea to develop longer range missiles), we can have a strategic option over whether to develop or deploy them. This can be our means to fend off North Korea’s provocations.”

Opponents argue the range extension could provoke neighboring countries such as China, Russia and Japan, worsen inter-Korean ties and needlessly raise regional military tension.

But as South Korea needs to strengthen its self-defense capabilities given that it will retake wartime operational control from the U.S. in December 2015, experts argue that it is crucial to secure better delivery capabilities.

“Beyond political, diplomatic logic, what is crucial is to secure adequate missile technology, which is more important than getting combat fighter jets. We should also think we can no longer depend wholly on the U.S. after the OPCON transfer,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at Korea Defense and Security Forum.

Shin Beom-chul, research fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, echoed his view.

“As there continue to be military threats from the North such as weapons of mass destruction and its nuclear programs, we need to have both sufficient defense and offense capabilities. When there are signs of attacks using WMDs, we need to rapidly respond to them,” he said.

“But cruise missiles we have are slow and lacking the rapid strike abilities.”

A military source pointed out that as China, Russia and other states are well aware that with increasing economic interdependence with them, Seoul has no intention of militarily threatening them, a longer missile range would not provoke them.

“China and Russia would not feel threatened by South Korea’s longer-range missiles. They would rather be pushed to pressure North Korea to refrain from provocative behavior,” he said, declining to be identified.

Referring to Seoul’s membership with the Missile Control Technology Regime, some have raised concerns that Seoul could violate the U.S.-led program should it have longer-range missiles.

The U.S. led the establishment of the MCTR in 1987 to restrict the export of delivery systems and related technology over concerns that many developing countries considered developing missiles at the time.

The program bans the export of any missile or unmanned aerial vehicle with a range of 300 km and a payload weighing more than 500 kg. Seoul joined the program in 2001, becoming the 33rd official member of the U.S.-led program.

Shin of KIDA said that Seoul would not violate the regime with the revision of the missile pact as the MCTR governs the export issue, not a country’s development of missiles for its national defense.

But others argue that should Seoul be allowed to develop longer-range rockets, it could cause others in the MCTR framework to follow suit.

Seoul signed the first bilateral missile pact with Washington in 1979, despite the range limit of 180 km, on condition of U.S. assistance in missile technology development.

After years-long negotiations with the U.S. amid the North’s push for the development of advanced missile technology, the two allies agreed in 2001 to revise the original pact to extend the range to 300 km. That year, Seoul also joined the MCTR.

The longest-range North Korean ballistic missile, deployed since 2007, is the Musudan missile with a range of 3,000-4,000 km. This missile, in theory, brings Guam, the key U.S. strategic base in the Asia-Pacific region, within its range.

The longest-range North Korean missile under development is the Taepodong-2 missile, presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 km, enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still short of reaching the U.S. mainland. The missile’s tests have so far failed.

By Song Sang-ho (