U.S. and South Korea Hold Ballistic Missile Talks

Wade Boese

THE LATEST ROUND of U.S.-South Korean negotiations, held November 18-20, on South Korea's ballistic missile program yielded no final agreement, though the United States reported the two sides moved "closer together." The talks, which have been carried out intermittently for the past four years, aim to permit Seoul to develop longer-range missiles while keeping their maximum range below a threshold that the United States finds acceptable, allowing it to endorse South Korean admission to the 32-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

In a 1979 memorandum of understanding with the United States, which was reiterated in 1990, South Korea voluntarily pledged not to develop ballistic missiles with ranges exceeding 180 kilometers. Since late 1995, however, Seoul has sought to abrogate that limit.

South Korea argues that longer-range missiles will be a more credible deterrent against North Korea, which has a much more developed, and visible, ballistic missile program. Specifically, Seoul wants to develop 300-500 kilometer-range missiles so that it can target all of North Korea. These plans, however, are jeopardizing the prospects for South Korea's membership in the MTCR.

The MTCR, a voluntary regime founded in 1987, seeks to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology for systems capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more-referred to as Category I systems. Members are also asked to exercise restraint in the export of other missile-related materials and technologies that could be used for delivering weapons of mass destruction.

Admission to the MTCR does not automatically give a state access to other members' missile technology, but it can open the door for participation and cooperation in space-launch activities, providing a strong incentive for joining the regime.

Though the MTCR only restricts exports of missile systems and technologies and has no prohibitions against indigenous missile programs, the United States adopted a policy in 1993 that calls on all prospective MTCR members-except nuclear-weapon states-to forgo all offensive Category I systems before acceding to the regime. Because the MTCR operates by consensus, the United States can wield this policy as a veto over potential members.

However, the United States did consent to Ukrainian MTCR membership in 1998 while permitting Kiev to retain Scud missiles that fall under Category I (See ACT, March 1998). Nevertheless, a U.S. government official said Washington is "not changing" its 1993 policy for any future member.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation Robert Einhorn, who headed the U.S. delegation at the latest U.S.-South Korean talks, told reporters the United States was "sympathetic" to the South Korean position of increasing its missile capabilities. Washington, according to the U.S. embassy in South Korea, is trying to meet Seoul's concerns in ways "consistent with" MTCR and "U.S. global non-proliferation policies." Presumably, this entails allowing South Korea to exceed the current 180-kilometer limit, but forbidding development of missiles with ranges equal to or greater than 300 kilometers.

Washington is also seeking to negotiate greater U.S. access to Seoul's ballistic missile program. Recent press reports charged South Korea with covertly developing missiles that violate the 1979 bilateral agreement. South Korean Defense Minister Cho Song-Tae, during a November 23 press conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, dismissed these accusations and replied that "transparency is the one most important factor that we take into consideration in developing our missile program."

No date has been set for the next round of U.S.-South Korean missile talks, though the United States declared that it hopes remaining differences "will be resolved as soon as possible."