January 20, 2011 12:45
South Korean and U.S. officials have reportedly begun talks to revise a bilateral accord that limits the range of the South's ballistic missiles to 300 km and caps their payload capacity at 500 kg. The government says South Korea's ballistic missiles should have a range of at least 1,000 km and the payload ceiling should be lifted to 1 ton to bring all of North Korea within range from the southern coast. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will accept the proposal.
The geographical proximity and maintaining the balance with rival countries are the key considerations. North Korea has the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000 km as well as the Rodong missiles with a 1,300-km range. In 2009, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of more than 6,000 km.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently predicted that North Korea would within five years have an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Under these circumstances limiting the range of South Korean missiles to just 300 km is tantamount to tying the South's hands behind its back in the face of a serious threat.
The U.S. views the issue of increasing South Korea's missile arsenal from the global perspective of non-proliferation. But from Seoul's point of view it is vastly more important to deal effectively with the North Korean threat and adapt to the military situation in Northeast Asia. China has more than 40 ICBMs, while Japan can produce mid to long-range missiles any time, since it is already capable of launching a space rocket. If the limit remains, South Korea will be left out in the cold.
South Korea's missiles would be no threat to other countries but a vital defense. Even with a range of 1,000 km, they would pose no serious threat to China or Japan.
The U.S. will transfer full operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul at the end of 2014. Measures to boost the South's missile defense must be part of strengthening South Korea's military power ahead of the handover. The revision talks should focus on how South Korea can be given the basic tools needed to defend itself against North Korea's missile threat.
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