Conservatives here had bristled for years that Seoul was unable to even approach the North’s ballistic missile range, but Washington and others in the region have long used weapons-limiting pacts to prevent an arms race.
Under the new deal, South Korea can extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 800 kilometers (497 miles), up from the previous 300 kilometers (186 miles). That means that the South could conceivably strike even the northernmost tip of North Korea, as well as parts of northeast China. The previous restrictions were part of the voluntary multi-nation Missile Technology Control Regime, which Seoul entered in 2001.
In addition, the deal allows greater load weights for South Korean unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. Such vehicles are commonly used for surveillance but could also be used in combat.
Security experts in Seoul say this deal takes a modest step to close the technology gap with the North, an authoritarian police state that devotes as much as one-quarter of its gross national product to the military. In recent years, the North has attempted to launch several satellites, which are attached to rockets that employ long-range missile technology.
The latest launch, in April, ended in failure, with the Unha-3 rocket breaking up after about 90 seconds of flight. Last year, however, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the North could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States by 2016.
“The most important purpose of revising the missile guideline lies in deterring armed provocations by North Korea,” Chun Yung-woo, South Korean national security adviser, said Sunday in a briefing for reporters.
The North had no immediate reaction to the new agreement.
The agreement was spurred in part because the South, in 2015, will become responsible for operational control in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. The deal reverses the current agreement, in place since the end of the Korean War, which gives the United States full command of all joint war operations.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak referred to the change late last month when he called on the South to develop a more “agile and efficient” military ready for a high-tech war “based on science and technology.”
“In preparation for the return of wartime operational control, the Korean armed forces must bolster combined defense abilities under its initiative,” Lee said.