The display of a new type of missile by North Korea during its celebrations for the centenary of its founder's birth was no doubt intended as a show of military might. But it also sharpened focus on South Korea's comparable missile capabilities ? and whether they are up to the task of national defense.
Seemingly keen to make a statement of its own, the Ministry of National Defense on Thursday revealed its two latest missiles to media for the first time. One, a cruise missile, has a presumed range of at least 1,000 km, the other, a ballistic weapon, just 300 km. The discrepancy in range doesn't reflect technical limitations. It is the result of an agreement with the US, signed in 1979 and revised in 2001, limiting the reach of South Korean ballistic missiles to 300 km, putting much of North Korea out range. Pyongyang's arsenal includes ballistic missiles with an estimated range of up to 6,000 km. Ballistic missiles follow a trajectory and are generally faster and more difficult to intercept than their cruise counterparts.
President Lee Myung-bak believes the ballistic range must be extended to counter North Korean threats. He told media last month that he believed there would be a compromise between Seoul and Washington on the issue in the near future. South defense officials quoted in recent media reports have indicated that compromise is likely to result in a new maximum range of 800 km.
Song Dae-sung, the president of the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, is one of many security analysts who agree with the president's stance.
He sees the current limitation's on Seoul's arsenal to be a major defensive weakness, likening the current situation to having "a short swatter which can't even reach the mosquito."
"South Korea should ? must ? increase its ballistic missile range. The need to increase our ballistic missile range stems from the fact that North Korea has developed a vast arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles. There is a big gap between South Korea and North Korea in terms of the ballistic missile range," he told Voice.
Considering its close alliance, it is seems inconceivable that Seoul would go it alone in extending its missile range. But, according to Song, persistent North Korean aggression is likely to override US concerns about missile proliferation.
"Before North Korean provocations, in the form of the Cheonan incident, the Yeonpyeong artillery attack, and North Korean long-range missile test, the US might not have been favorable toward the extension of South Korea's missile range. However, considering North Korea's eagerness to provoke the South and the strategic importance of South Korea as an ally, I believe that the US would understand South Korea's decision to extend its missile range."
Park Jung-eun, the director of the peace and international solidarity team at civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, however, believes North Korea's missile capability, while "menacing," has been "exaggerated" by South Korea and the US
"As you know well, the South Korean military has developed and deployed a new cruise missile capable of making a precision strike at a target anywhere in North Korea. It means that South Korea already retains the capability to strike the North without an extension of the missile range and it just intends to strengthen military capability more," she said.