South Korean and U.S. officials wrapped up protracted negotiations on Sunday resulting in the extension of South Korea’s missile range from 300 km to 800 km. But the talks, which began in 2010, left the cap on the payload of missiles unchanged at 500 kg.
Seoul said the maximum range of its missiles needs to be at least 1,000 km to destroy strategic targets across North Korea in an emergency, but the range was extended to only 800 km due to fierce resistance from Washington. South Korean officials were unable to even raise the issue of increasing the payload until the latter half of the negotiations.
Also, Seoul will continue to be prohibited from developing civilian solid-fuel rockets due to U.S. concerns that the technology may be diverted to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile. The only other progress that was made in the talks was to gain U.S. approval to develop a drone that can carry a 2.5-ton warhead similar to the U.S.'s Global Hawk, whose payload is 2.2 tons.
Government officials here said missiles would be able to carry heavier payloads of up to 1 ton if a missile's range is reduced to 550 km as part of a trade-off. The heavier payload would mean that the South would be capable of taking out North Korean missile bases and launch pads 500 to 600 km away in case of an attack from the North.
In a military standoff, the most effective deterrent against aggression is to let the enemy know that a first strike would result in devastating retaliation. North Korea has maintained constant provocations, including the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, because it underestimated the potency of the South's retaliation.
South Korea will regain full operational control of its troops from the U.S. in 2015, but it will still lack the aerial surveillance capability that could enable it to clearly pinpoint sources of North Korean attacks. This would make it vulnerable to North Korean provocations.
South Korea's extended missile range still pales in comparison to North Korea's Musudan missile, which can hit targets 3,000 to 4,000 km away and carry a 650 kg warhead. China also has ICBMs with much longer ranges, while Japan's solid-fuel rockets can be converted quickly into long-range ballistic missiles.
If the government was always going to settle for such limited extensions to missile capacity, it should have left the task to the next administration, especially at a time when the missile race is heating up in Northeast Asia.