The U.S. Department of Defense is currently reviewing a request by the Republic of South Korea to allow it to develop more powerful ballistic missiles amidst rising tensions over North Korea’s growing military capabilities.
“There is currently a limit on the warhead size and missiles that South Korea can have and yes, it is a topic under active consideration here,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters on August 7, Reuters reports.
In a bilateral agreement signed in 1979, the United States and South Korea set out guidelines about the specific payload and range of the latter’s domestically developed missiles in order to avoid a regional arms race. These guidelines were updated in 2012. However, while South Korean missiles can have now an extended range of up to 800 kilometers (about 500 miles), the maximum payload remains unchanged at 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds).
In an August 7 phone conversation, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked his U.S. counterpart, President Donald Trump, to revise the guidelines and allow for the development of payloads of up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds). “President Trump expressed his position to actively support the move,” a South Korean government spokesperson said following the conversation between the two heads of government, according to Yonhap News.
The Pentagon is now reviewing the guidelines in consultation with the U.S. State Department to determine next steps. “I would tell you that we would be favorably inclined to do anything which furthers the defense capabilities of South Korea and we certainly have seen our alliance change and adapt over time before,” Pentagon spokesperson Davis told reporters.
The South Korean military’s ballistic missile arsenal currently consists of the Hyunmoo 2A and 2B surface-to-surface missiles. The Hyunmoo 2A has an estimated range of 300 kilometers, whereas the Hyunmoo 2B can hit targets at a distance of over 500 kilometers. Both ballistic missiles carry a payload of around 500 kilograms. As I reported in June, Seoul is furthermore working on a third extended range variant:
South Korea is also working on fielding an extended range Hyunmoo 2 missile with an estimated range of 800 kilometers. The last test launch of this new missile, likely to be designated the Hyunmoo 2c, took place on June 23 and was overseen by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The new missile is expected to become operational by the end of 2017.
The 2C is essentially an upgraded 2B ballistic missile armed with a 500 kilogram payload. The 2C, however, could be modified to accommodate a heavier warhead. Precision-guided ballistic missiles armed with a 1-ton warhead will likely have a bigger chance penetrating leadership bunkers and other underground facilities in the North.
“The deep precision-strike capable missiles are part of Seoul’s deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Pyongyang, known as Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR),” as I explained last month. “KMPR foresees precision strikes with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, air-launched missiles and special operations forces against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s military leadership in the event of a nuclear attack.”