There could be serious ramifications to a new deal with the United States that enables South Korea to develop ballistic missiles with significantly greater ranges, an issue analyst said in the November edition of Arms Control Today.
Under the bilateral defense cooperation agreement reached in October, Seoul may now domestically develop and manufacture high-altitude missiles with ranges close to 500 miles -- a distance that puts all of North Korea within targeting distance. A previous defense accord with Washington only allowed the South to develop ballistic missiles with ranges up to 186 miles.
Social Science Research Council Korea analyst Leon Sigal said the modified missile range allowance is "exceedingly dangerous given the state of the military balance" in the region. He recommended that Washington and Seoul determine whether the South would give the head of U.S. military forces in South Korea advance notice prior to mounting an attack. Leaving the call completely in Seoul's hands would heighten worries of events spiraling out of control during an incident, according to Sigal.
North Korea already possesses ballistic missiles capable of striking any location in the South and possibly deployed U.S. military forces as far away as Guam. It has sought to establish an ICBM capability, but several flight trials to date have not shown promising results.
South Korea has a "symbolic and psychological need to 'mirror'" the North's missile capacities that can be understood, but employing space launch capabilities and battlefield antimissile systems to "defeat or blunt" Pyongyang's warnings of violence would have "greater utility," Michael Elleman, a former missile specialist for the United Nations, stated by e-mail.
If South Korea's main objective is the capacity to hit any location in North Korea, lower-flying cruise missiles are preferable to ballistic missiles as they are "more accurate, militarily effective and less vulnerable to pre-emption," according to Elleman.
Elleman, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, cautioned against overstating the harm caused by the agreement to the Missile Technology Control Regime -- a nonbinding group of 34 nations that use export restrictions as a means of deterring the spread of ballistic missiles with flight distances longer than 186 miles. The South Korean allowance is "troublesome," he said.
It has been U.S. policy to lobby non-nuclear armed nations coming into the regime since the early 1990s to adopt the MTCR restrictions in their domestic missile capabilities and sales to other countries.
An unidentified State Department official rejected the contention of damage caused to the MTCR regime as a result of the U.S.-South Korea missile deal. The official insisted by e-mail the deal would have "no implications for other countries' missile-related export behavior" and that it would "not impact the export control commitments" Seoul agreed to abide by when it became a member of the regime in 2001.