The U.S. government has rejected South Korea's request to transfer core technologies on F-35 stealth fighters, dealing a further blow to Seoul's KF-X project to develop its own fighter jets.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it clear that the American government will not agree to Defense Minister Han Min-koo's request for the transfer, the Ministry of National Defense said.
Han asked Carter to reconsider Washington's earlier decision not to hand over the technologies, during their talks at the Pentagon Thursday. But Carter said there will be no change in Washington's stance.
The minister accompanied President Park Geun-hye on her trip in a bid to persuade the U.S. government to change its position.
The U.S. refusal is expected to add fuel to criticism against the Korean government that it chose Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighters as its next-generation fighters although it knew there would be no transfer of the technologies.
As Seoul has failed to persuade Washington, the KF-X project is expected to falter. The government said it can develop the necessary technologies on its own, but questions remain about whether this is possible and whether it can achieve its goal of developing indigenous jets by 2025.
Han reportedly suggested a condition that Seoul will take all possible measures not to allow the technologies to be transferred to another country, if handed over. Refusing the offer, Carter said he would seek ways to strengthen technological cooperation with Seoul instead, the statement said.
The officials agreed to set up a consultative body to improve cooperation in defense technology, including the KF-X project.
The four technologies ― the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, infrared search and track (IRST), electronic optics targeting pod (EOTGP) and radio frequency (RF) jammer ― are considered critical in the development of high-tech fighter jets.
The AESA radar helps a pilot identify foes in battle and finds targets on the ground. IRST detects and traces infrared signals from engines or missiles, warning a pilot if an enemy aircraft has fired missiles. EOTGP, which detects and traces targets, helps a pilot's pinpoint strikes against ground targets. The RF jammer shoots out high-powered electromagnetic waves to freeze an enemy's electronic equipment. It helps increase aircraft survival.
Amid growing concerns following the U.S. refusal, DAPA said it will push cooperation with other foreign companies in developing AESA radar and IRST technologies, and will autonomously develop EOTGP and RF jammers.
According to the report submitted to the defense ministry by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning (KISTEP) in November, it is impossible for the KF-X project to proceed if it fails to secure the core technologies.
The nation's Agency for Defense Development has been working on developing the AESA radar since 2006 with defense firm LIG Nex1. It plans to finish the project by 2021. But critics say even if it succeeds, it is less likely that the radar can be incorporated into the jets by 2015.
Some suggest Carter proposed the cooperative body for defense technology in consideration of rising fears on Seoul's side.
They also speculate that the body could work as a channel to discuss the possible deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, the core of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, on the Korean Peninsula.
"The establishment of a joint body was not on the agenda," an official from the government said. "The scope of cooperation remains to be discussed."
Han and Carter also exchanged views on the possibility of additional North Korean provocations and reaffirmed to maintain a solid, combined defense posture and sternly respond to North Korean provocations, the statement said.
The two agreed to continue the condition-based transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces and increase cooperation in space and cyberspace, as well as the defense industry.