January 19, 2011 / 9:26 AM / 10 years ago

South Korea seeks longer-range missiles - report

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is seeking clearance from the United States to make its own ballistic missile capable of hitting all of rival North Korea, the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted a government official as saying on Wednesday.

Seoul wants to a revise a pact it agreed with Washington in 2001 which limits its production of ballistic missiles to a range of up to 300 km and a payload of up to 500 kg, the report said.

“South Korea and the U.S. have been engaged in negotiations to extend the missile range since late last year,” the unnamed source told Yonhap, adding the two sides have a “common understanding” on the matter.

“As the talks are still at an early stage, it is too early to say how long the missile range could be extended,” the source said. “But there is a need to extend it beyond 1,000 km.”

Government officials in Seoul declined comment on the report.

For decades, the South has lived with a missile threat from its neighbour whose offensive missile arsenal has qualitatively and quantitatively outweighed its own arsenal.

North Korea has more than 800 ballistic missiles and more than 1,000 missiles of various ranges.

Experts say Washington had previously been leery of South’s missile programme, worried that it might trigger an arms race with North Korea.

The United States guarantees the South’s defence, and has nearly 30,000 troops on its territory. U.S. forces are equipped with tactical missiles and Patriot missile defence systems.

South Korea has recently deployed new long-range cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 km, but they do not violate the agreement which only applies to free flight ballistic missiles.

The cruise missiles are capable of hitting all of North Korea and also targets in China and Russia.

Last week U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said North Korea was becoming a direct threat to the U.S. as he predicted the North would develop an inter-continental ballistic missile within five years.

Tensions have been high on the peninsula after two deadly attacks on South Korea last year, and revelations by the North of advances in its nuclear programme.

Reporting by Jeremy Laurence and Ju-min Park; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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