The U.S. government has reached an agreement with South Korea on Seoul’s development of longer-range missiles beyond limits set by an international accord.
The deal, expected to be announced this week, will result in South Korea’s military moving ahead with plans to build ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 341 miles from the current range limit of 186 miles set under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
The new agreement will also open the way for South Korea to purchase U.S.-made long-range Global Hawk intelligence drones, currently limited for export due to MTCR restrictions.
South Korea has been seeking to purchase Global Hawks for surveillance of North Korea since 2009.
The current U.S.-South Korean missile agreement limits South Korea from building or buying ballistic missiles—those that travel into space and re-enter the atmosphere—with ranges greater than 186 miles. The new agreement modifies that 2001 accord to increase the ballistic missile range limit from 300 kilometers to 550 kilometers, or 341 miles.
The extended range missile accord would give South Korea the ability to attack targets throughout most of North Korea.
Some arms control proponents inside the Obama administration opposed the new arrangement, arguing that it undermines international efforts to limit missile proliferation.
The agreement has been under discussion for the past several months.
A State Department spokesman could not be reached for comment on the agreement.
In April, South Korea’s defense ministry requested $2.1 billion over five years for new missiles. The missile buildup is being sought as a response to North Korea’s development of long-range missiles.
South Korea’s defense ministry on April 19 released video of two new missiles, including a cruise missile with a range of over 620 miles, and a tactical ballistic missile with a range of 186 miles. The old U.S.-South Korea agreement does not limit cruise missile ranges.
The video quoted a South Korean general as saying the new ballistic missile is more powerful than the U.S.-made MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System deployed with South Korean forces.
One defense official said the missile range extension pact is raising new questions about U.S. extended nuclear deterrence for South Korea, which could influence that nation’s decision to remain a non-nuclear power.
Extending the range of ground-launched missiles could be the first step toward developing a South Korean nuclear deterrent to counter the small arsenal in the communist North.
The Obama administration is seeking sharp nuclear force cuts that some specialists say could undermine so-called extended deterrence—the umbrella of U.S. nuclear forces that are designed to counter nuclear powers in Asia and Europe.
An administration Nuclear Posture Review implementation study group was directed to examine the possibility of cutting deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads to as low as 300, less than are estimated to be in China’s currently known strategic arsenal.
The agreement follows North Korea’s recent test of a long-range missile and comes amid growing concerns that Pyongyang will follow the launch with a third underground nuclear test, as it did in the past when two nuclear tests followed two long-range missile launches.
Signs of activity have been detected at a North Korean nuclear test site, although China’s government is said to be urging its North Korean ally to avoid further provocation.
Last month, U.S. intelligence agencies detected work that appeared to be improving a North Korean missile launch facility at Musudan-ri, in the northeast part of the country. The construction has fueled new worries about North Korea’s development of a long-range missile.
Also, on April 15 North Korea displayed for the first time a new long-range, road-mobile ICBM deployed on a Chinese-made transporter-erector launcher, highlighting continued Chinese assistance to North Korea’s strategic missile program.
The missile launcher export was traced to a Chinese company and violates United Nations sanctions on North Korea that prohibit the transfer of any goods related to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Last month, North Korea’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that South Korea’s government is using the North’s test firing of what it claimed is a satellite launch as an excuse to build new missiles in response.
John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence specialist, said the South Koreans "have reached the end of their collective rope with North Korea" after several deadly military confrontations since 2010.
The recent failed missile test was the last straw, he said, along with the brazen display by the North of the new mobile ICBM launcher.
"Understandably, Korean President Lee and President Obama realize that the United States is no longer in a position to claim any legal, ethical, or logical reason – certainly no arms control reason – to restrain South Korea from developing the types of weapons systems it needs to deter Pyongyang’s viciousness," Tkacik told the Free Beacon.
"The whole rationale for restraining South Korea’s missile development was to keep a damper on North Korea’s weapons, but it’s just nutty to keep on citing that as a goal. That genie is already long burst from its bottle. However, that’s not to say the nuttier side of the arms-control community won’t argue against South Korea’s ability to defend itself."
South Korean press reports from April said the missile extension agreement was discussed during the visit to Washington in late April by Kim Tae-hyo, a senior national security aide to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
One report at the time said the new missile accord would not be made public because of concerns that it would undermine agreements between the Untied States and other countries not to develop longer-range missiles.
A Pentagon spokeswoman would not address the new missile accord.
"The U.S. and the Republic of Korea are in regular discussion on the security alliance and how it is best postured and equipped to maintain peace and security on the Korea Peninsula," said Maj. Cathy Wilkinson.
South Korea in 2001 signed up to the limits of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal political understanding that seeks limits on trade in missiles and related technology.
The 2001 New Missile Guidelines prevent South Korea from buying or building complete rocket and unmanned aerial vehicle systems (including ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles, sounding rockets, cruise missiles, target drones, and reconnaissance drones) that can carry payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km.
Missile subsystems, including rocket stages, engines, guidance sets, and re-entry vehicles, are banned under the 2001 agreement, as are related software and technology, and production facilities.
According to a State Department cable made public by Wikileaks, South Korea carried out "repeated and continued … development of new missiles systems that are inconsistent with the 2001 U.S.- New Missile Guidelines (NMG) agreement constraining their missile systems to MTCR Category I limits."
The cable said that if Global Hawks are sold to Seoul, delivery would take place around 2014.
Also, current Global Hawk deployments in Guam do not provide enough intelligence coverage of North Korea.
"The United States understands the ROK's need for enhanced ISR capabilities and is carefully reviewing the ROK's request for Global Hawk," the 2009 cable said.
Another 2009 cable quotes a South Korean official asking the United States to reconsider the MTCR restrictions on exporting space launch technology following a failed South Korean space launch. The request is an indication that South Korea would like to better develop space launchers with U.S.-origin technology. Space launch rocket boosters are very similar to long-range missiles.