SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The United States has agreed to allow South Korea to possess longer-range missiles that could strike all of North Korea, officials said Sunday, a development expected to draw an angry response from the North.
Under a 2001 accord with Washington, South Korea has been barred from developing and deploying ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) and a payload of more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) because of concerns about a regional arms race.
The restriction has made South Korea's missile capability inferior to that of rival North Korea, and some key military installations in the North have been out of South Korea's missile range.
South Korea announced Sunday that the U.S. accord has been altered to allow the South to have ballistic missiles with a range of up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) to better cope with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
Under the new agreement, South Korea will continue to limit the payload to 500 kilograms for ballistic missiles with an 800-kilometer range, but it will be able to use heavier payloads for missiles with shorter ranges, senior presidential official Chun Yung-woo told a news conference. The heavier a payload is, the more destructive power it can have.
"The most important objective for our government in revising the missile guideline is to contain North Korea's armed provocation," Chun said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that it will greatly increase its missile capability under the new accord, adding that South Korea will be able to "strike all of North Korea, even from southern areas."
U.S. Defense Department press secretary George Little said the agreement resulted from a South Korean-requested discussion on ways to respond to North Korean missile activities.
"These revisions are a prudent, proportional, and specific response to the (North Korean) ballistic missile threat," he said.
The deal also will allow South Korea to operate drone aircraft carrying payloads of up to 2,500 kilograms (5,510 pounds) with a range of more than 300 kilometers (186 miles). It places no restriction on payloads for drones with a flying distance of less than 300 kilometers, officials said.
South Korea can also possess cruise missiles with an unlimited range as long as their payload is less than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Media reports say the South has deployed cruise missiles with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) but defense officials have refused to confirm that.
Cruise missiles fly at a lower altitude and slower speed than ballistic missiles, making them easier to intercept, although they are considered more accurate.
North Korean state media didn't immediately respond to the announcement, but analysts expected they would issue a harsh statement.
"North Korea will say South Korea's missile development is a preparation for war. It will likely warn that South Korea cannot avoid a nuclear disaster if it moves to attack North Korean missile bases," said analyst Baek Seung-joo of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
North Korea has missiles that can hit South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry. In April, the country conducted a long-range rocket test that Washington, Seoul and others called a cover for a test of long-range missile technology. North Korea says the rocket, which broke apart shortly after liftoff, was meant to launch a satellite.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, but experts don't believe it has yet mastered the technology needed to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile.
The Korean Peninsula remains officially at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S. stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against possible aggression from North Korea.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Balder in Montevideo, Uruguay, contributed to this report.