Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS A missile on display at an army base in Seoul, South Korea, September 2003.

How to Handle South Korea's Missile Ambitions

The United States Should Not Give Seoul a Blank Check

When U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet this week, they are certain to discuss Seoul’s plans to build larger, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The White House has already signaled its willingness to back this effort, and talks about how to do so are underway. These talks were planned despite recent reports of warming ties between Beijing and Seoul. But if the United States is serious about reducing the prospects for war and nuclear missile proliferation, as well as strengthening its alliance with South Korea, the Trump administration cannot hand South Korea a blank check. At the very least, it should put limits on the range of Seoul’s missiles and ensure that the United States retains a say in when they are used.

This would be in line with over 40 years of the alliance’s history. U.S. efforts to limit South Korea’s missile ambitions date back to when Seoul was first caught trying to acquire nuclear weapons, in the 1970s. In exchange for access to basic American missile technology, South Korea agreed not to build any ballistic missiles that could travel more than 110 miles. To help ensure that Seoul did not violate this agreement, the United States conducted inspections of South Korean missile facilities.

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in New York, September 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in New York, September 2017.

As the North Korean threat has grown in recent years, Seoul has repeatedly strengthened its missile forces. First, in 2001, South Korea got the United States to agree to extend its missile range limit to 185 miles while carrying a 1,100-pound warhead. Then, in 2012, the two countries reached an agreement that permitted Seoul to build ballistic missiles able to travel 500 miles—enough to cover all of North Korea—while carrying a 1,100-pound warhead. The same agreement also allowed South Korea to build missiles with larger payloads but shorter ranges. Under these later agreements, it is unclear whether the United States continued to conduct formal

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