S. Korea seeks OK to beef up missiles
It says U.S. open to talks on buildup
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States has agreed to start negotiations to allow South Korea to build more powerful ballistic missiles to counter North Korea’s rapidly advancing missile technologies, the office of the South’s president said Saturday.
South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jaein, called for the relaxation of limits on its missile arsenal hours after North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile 2,200 miles into space that landed its warhead just off the coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island.
Experts quickly calculated that the demonstrated range of that test shot, if flattened out over the Pacific Ocean, could easily reach Los Angeles and perhaps as far as Chicago and New York, though its accuracy is in doubt.
Moon’s top national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, called his White House counterpart, Gen. H.R. McMaster, early Saturday to propose that the allies immediately start negotiations to permit South Korea to build up its missile capabilities. McMaster agreed to the proposal, which would likely involve increasing the payload on South Korea’s ballistic missiles, according to officials in both countries.
South Korea needs approval from the U.S. to build more powerful missiles under the terms of a bilateral treaty.
There are still questions over whether North Korea can shrink a nuclear weapon to fit atop its intercontinental missiles or keep them from burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere.
But at the Pentagon and inside U.S. intelligence agencies, there was a sense that the North had now crossed a threshold it has long sought: Demonstrating that if the U.S. ever threatened the regime of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader and grandson of the country’s founder, the North has the ability to threaten death and destruction in the continental United States.
The U.S. has lived with that threat from Russia and China for decades, but the previous four U.S. presidents have all said the U.S. could
not take that risk with a government as unpredictable as North Korea’s.
The launch confirmed several key technical advances, showing the power of the motors and the ability of the missile to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the North Korean state news agency reported.
It also “demonstrated the capability of making surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time, and clearly proved that the whole U.S. mainland is in the firing range of the DPRK missiles,” the agency quoted Kim as saying.
Hours after Friday’s test, former U.S. officials said President Donald Trump’s options are limited.
“In the White House you have a threshold decision: Can you get them back to the table or not,” Mark Lippert, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Seoul, said Saturday about negotiating with the North Koreans — a step Trump said during the 2016 campaign, and again several months ago, that he was willing to try. Lippert said he supports Washington’s current diplomatic efforts as well as United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
Lippert, speaking at a conference in Kent, Conn., said that barring negotiations, “the question gets binary pretty quick: containment or some kind of military operations.”
Others question whether the Trump administration, immersed in its own internal upheavals, can focus on the problem.
“It takes a president of the United States who has the intellectual, global and historical depth” to deal with the Korean crisis, said R. Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration.
Some believe that the U.S. will simply learn to live with the North’s new capability, despite the words of Trump and his predecessors.
“We are left in a situation where they believe we will ultimately acquiesce,” said Christopher Hill, an American diplomat who led nuclear negotiations with North Korea during the last Bush administration, which resulted in the dismantlement of part of a plutonium reactor. Hill is now dean of the Korbel School at the University of Denver.
Moon also ordered his government Saturday to cooperate with the U.S. to install an advanced U.S. missile defense battery. The previous South Korean government had agreed to host the U.S. antimissile system, and the deployment was expedited as it became increasingly clear that Moon, who had vowed during the election campaign to review the process, was going to win.
The radar and launch system, along with two launchers, had been deployed and was operational before his election in May. But Moon professed anger when he discovered that four additional launchers had been moved into South Korea after his election without his knowledge. American analysts said a full battery consists of six launchers and that this had always been the agreement.
But after Friday night’s launch, Moon said he was willing to discuss the “temporary” deployment of the four additional launchers.
Moon’s actions signaled that the growing missile threat from North Korea was spurring an arms buildup in Northeast Asia. Japan earlier said it was considering buying ballistic missile defense systems from the United States.
But China has adamantly opposed installing the missile defense system in South Korea, arguing that it would only make tensions with North Korea more volatile and could undermine China’s own nuclear deterrent by giving the U.S. another means to monitor its missiles.
CHINA WEIGHS IN
On Saturday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the resumed deployment of the missile defense system.
“China is gravely concerned with the course of action taken by South Korea,” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said in the statement. “Deploying [the defense system] won’t solve South Korea’s security concerns, won’t solve the related issues on the Korean Peninsula and will only further complicate issues.”
The test Friday night left little doubt that North Korea, although cut off from most of the global economy and hit with several rounds of U.N. sanctions, is getting closer to its goal of arming itself with long-range missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to the U.S.
“U.S. policy for 21 years has been to prevent this day from coming, and now it has,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, referring to the North’s latest ICBM test. “North Korea didn’t test an ICBM to launch a bolt from the blue against Washington. They’re hoping to split the United States from its allies.”
North Korea first tested its ICBM, the Hwasong-14, on July 4, although in that earlier launching, it did not demonstrate the missile’s full range.
“The U.S. trumpeting about war and extreme sanctions and threat against the DPRK only emboldens the latter and offers a better excuse for its access to nukes,” said Kim, the North’s leader, referring to the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, after watching the missile test Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday reaffirmed that the U.S. “will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea nor abandon our commitment to our allies and partners in the region.”
At the U.N. Security Council, Washington is urging China and Russia to agree to a new set of economic sanctions against North Korea, including severely curtailing the country’s access to oil supplies from the outside. China and Russia supply nearly all of North Korea’s oil imports and host tens of thousands of North Korean workers. The bulk of the workers’ earnings end up in the coffers of the North Korean leadership, according to human rights groups and defectors.
“As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability,” Tillerson said.
People at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, watch Saturday as a television news report shows North Korea’s latest test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.