South Korea's latest missile deal with the United States, albeit belated, is a significant step forward in deterring North Korean aggression after the country relied on the U.S. for longer-range missiles for decades, experts say.
The new "missile guideline" deal, announced Sunday after nearly two years of negotiations between Seoul and Washington, enables South Korea to develop longer-range ballistic missiles capable of striking all of North Korea and, more importantly, carrying stronger warheads.
Under the deal, the maximum range of South Korean ballistic missiles was extended from 300 kilometers to 800 kilometers, a distance long enough to reach all of North Korea. The agreement also allows Seoul to load its ballistic missiles with warheads heavier than the current limit of 500 kilograms on the condition their range decreases in proportion.
The maximum load weight for a South Korean unmanned aerial vehicle was also raised to 2.5 tons from the current 500 kilograms under the deal. That is also considered significant because unmanned aircraft can be loaded with weapons for attack purposes.
"This is significant in that we can dramatically bolster our deterrence against North Korea," said Kim Tae-woo, a top security and defense expert in South Korea. Kim, who heads the Korea Institute for National Unification, said such a deal is long overdue.
He stressed the gap in asymmetrical warfare capabilities between South Korea and North Korea has widened too much as the communist nation ceaselessly pursues nuclear and missile programs, and the latest deal is expected to help narrow that.
"After all, I believe this will contribute to peaceful coexistence and prosperity between the South and the North," he said, as stronger deterrence capabilities of the South reduce the chance of armed clashes between the two.
Senior presidential security secretary Chun Yung-woo said the most important purpose Seoul placed on revising the missile guideline was to deter armed provocations by North Korea.
"We will secure effective and various means to incapacitate North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities and safeguard the lives and safety of our people if North Korea launches armed attacks," he said, when announcing the new guidelines.
The missile guidelines are not subject to parliamentary approval as they are technically a voluntary policy declaration by Seoul. South Korea and the United States first reached the guidelines in 1979 after Washington asked for them out of concern over missile proliferation.
The deal initially put a 180 km cap on the range of South Korean missiles. That limit was extended to 300 km when the deal was last revised in 2001, in exchange for Seoul's accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international anti-missile proliferation regime.
The maximum payload weight had remained at 500 kg from the beginning.
"Our government reaffirms that it will faithfully comply with the norms of the international missile nonproliferation regime, MTCR, and maintain maximum transparency in missile development in the future," Chun said.
The extended range could have implications for regional security as it puts parts of Japan and China within striking distance as well.
Officials flatly dismiss such concerns, however, saying greater missile capabilities in the South would be helpful to Japan's security.
South Korea has already notified China, Japan and Russia of the extended range, officials said.
South Korea's missile capabilities pale when compared to those of North Korea.
The communist nation has actively pursued missile development, along with nuclear weapons development. The country is believed to have more than 1,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles deployed. Experts say the North's most advanced Taepodong series missiles could even reach part of the United States.
Pyongyang has honed its missile technology through a series of long-range missile or rocket tests, including one last April.
Pyongyang claimed the April lift-off was a satellite launch, but drew strong international condemnation as it was believed to be a cover for testing missile technology.
The North is banned from any ballistic missile testing under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Whenever the North has tested long-range missiles, calls have spiked in South Korea to extend its missile range, with some hard-line conservatives describing the missile agreement as "humiliating" and even demanding Seoul scrap it altogether.
Pyongyang is expected to denounce the new missile deal as it has long accused Seoul and Washington of plotting to invade the country while claiming their joint military exercises are a rehearsal for such an invasion.
"North Korea may protest as part of its diplomatic offensive, but that would be nonsense," Kim, the defense expert, said, noting the communist nation already has "more than 1,000 missiles that can strike the South hard."
South and North Korea share the world's most heavily fortified border. The two sides are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea to help deter North Korean aggression. (Yonhap)