Consensus is growing that the missile guidelines which limit the range of South Korea's missiles to 300 km and the payload to 500 kg are out of date. The guidelines were first agreed with the U.S. in 1979, when the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, John Wickham, sent a letter to then defense minister Roh Jae-hyun asking that the South's missiles should not exceed 180 km in range and carry payloads of less than 500 kg, which Roh accepted.
The range was extended to 300 km in a revision of the guidelines in 2001, and talks for another revision have been under way since January last year.
If North Korea launches a surprise attack against South Korea, the South may have to counterattack from the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, which is likely to suffer less damage. To make that possible, the government says, the range of South Korean missiles must be extended to 800-1,000 km. But the U.S. says a range of 550 km would be enough to achieve the purpose and anything longer could worry China and Japan.
A total of 33 countries have signed the Missile Technology Control Regime, which limits the export of missiles with ranges of more than 300 km and payloads that exceed 500 kg, and the U.S. has separate bilateral agreements with a number of countries including South Korea, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa that prevent them from developing missiles beyond a certain range. The reason Washington is hesitant to revise the agreement with South Korea is because it fears that other countries would then seek similar treatment.
But South Korea is not a signatory of the MTCR and faces a unique security situation confronted with North Korea, which continues to extend the range of its missiles. The North's Rodong missiles have a range of 1,300 km and are capable of attacking anywhere in Japan. It is also testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. China has ICBMs with a range of more than 2,000 km, and Japan has the rocket technology to manufacture ICBMs any time. It makes no sense under these circumstances for the U.S. to worry that extending the range of South Korea's missiles would upset China and Japan.
South Korea, moreover, is armed only with conventional weapons. It would only raise suspicions if Washington continues to pressure Seoul with a bilateral agreement struck before the North Korean nuclear threat existed, even though it is evident how vulnerable South Korea now is. Why does the U.S. want to shackle South Korea when it is aware that North Korea could launch a preemptive attack at any time? These suspicions will only strain the Seoul-Washington alliance.