Talks between South Korea and the U.S. to revise bilateral missile guidelines seem to be stuck in their final stages. The talks, which aim to extend the range and payload of South Korean missiles, began in January last year, and officials have been saying since May that they are nearing completion.
But while Washington has in principle agreed that Korea can extend the range of its missiles beyond the currently permitted 300 km, the question remains by how much and whether the payload can also be increased beyond the currently permissible 500 kg. Another question that has recently arisen is whether South Korean unmanned aerial vehicles could carry warheads of more than 500 kg.
"The U.S. side recently agreed to extending the range of Korean ballistic missiles from 300 km to 550 km," said a government source here. "But we feel it needs to be extended to at least 800 km," which the U.S. does not like.
A range of 800 km would enable South Korea to hit North Korean positions from relatively safe bases in the south of the Korean Peninsula in the event of an attack. But the U.S. is apparently against this because 550 km is enough to hit any part of North Korea from bases near the border, while a range of 800 km to 1,000 km could worry China and Japan.
When it comes to the size of the payload, the U.S. is insisting on a 2001 agreement that said any increase in range beyond 300 km would require the payload to weigh less than 500 kg and vice versa. In other words, if Seoul is to get its wish of extending the range, it will have to accept a smaller payload. In the case of drones, South Korea also wants a payload of more than 500 kg to accommodate the long-range, remote-controlled surveillance aircraft it wants to develop. The U.S. has apparently accepted some of these demands.
The guidelines themselves are technically a political promise and not a legally binding treaty. According to a key official who participated in the talks in 2001, the guidelines can in theory be scrapped if either side informs the other six months in advance.
But Seoul has abided by the guidelines so far because it does not want to damage its relationship with Washington, which is crucial for its national security.