Korea, US remain at odds over missile range
Less than a week after President Lee Myung-bak expressed optimism over the revision of a bilateral ballistic missile agreement with the United States, President Barack Obama has indicated that the two allies remain poles apart on the issue.
Under an agreement reached in 2001 with Washington, Seoul restricted its ballistic missile range to 300 kilometers, roughly half the distance between the demilitarized zone and North Korea’s border with China.
Obama maintained that it was a technical issue dealt with at the military level, not the presidential level when asked a question about Seoul’s push to extend the range of ballistic missiles during a joint news conference after Sunday’s summit with Lee.
Despite his earlier upbeat remarks, Lee acknowledged that he had not even deliberated on the matter which he had predicted to be settled soon in favor of Seoul.
A senior defense official here said that the Pentagon was positive on the extension of South Korea’s missile range before Seoul’s planned retaking of wartime operational command over its troops from the United States in December 2015.
However, he noted that the U.S. State Department differs from the Pentagon’s stance as it is worried that Washington’s approval for the revision could be seen as a violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and set off a domino effect.
“The United States has transferred technology to South Korea for the latter’s satellite launches and development of advanced missiles,” the official said asking for anonymity, noting that South Korea accumulated its missile technology while copying Nike Hercules missiles and other U.S. weapons to develop its own.
He underlined that the international community may interpret Seoul’s development of long-range missiles as Washington breaching the MTCR that the United States and the six remaining G7 countries established in 1987 to restrict the export of rockets with a range of more than 300 kilometers and a payload of over 500 kilograms.
Currently, 34 countries are members of the MTCR, including Russia, Canada, Brazil and Germany. Seoul joined the multilateral export control regime in 2001.
A government official said the United States has been reluctant to give a green light to the South to extend its missile range as it fears other countries, including potential rivals, will follow suit and develop longer-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear warheads.
“The United States has secret bilateral missile pacts with many other countries,” he said. “If it gives preferential treatment to South Korea, other nations may decide to dishonor their agreements with Washington, jeopardizing the ongoing U.S. efforts to curb the proliferation of long-range missiles.”
However, Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, claimed that the only way for the South to reach all North Korean targets ― including some of Pyongyang’s 700 Scud missiles ― with ballistic missiles would be revising the bilateral missile pact.
“Seoul’s voluntary self-restriction did not prevent North Korea from developing missiles that can reach all of South Korea,” he said.
“America's critical ally should be allowed to extend its missile range to 800 km (approximately the length of the Korean Peninsula) so it can have a sufficiently robust indigenous military to deter, defend, and defeat North Korean hostile actions, including a ballistic missile attack.”
The Korean Peninsula stretches about 1,030 kilometers from north to south and between 175 and 300 kilometers from west to east.
Seoul has sought to revise the agreement to match the range of missiles in the North Korean arsenal. Working-level officials of the two countries are expected to meet next month to iron out differences over the disputed pact.