SEOUL, South Korea – The United States is open to talks on the possibility of South Korea developing ballistic missiles capable of striking all of North Korea, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said Tuesday.
A senior general at the U.S. command in Seoul told aides to South Korean lawmakers last week the allies can discuss the revision of a 2001 accord barring the South from developing missiles with a range of more than 186 miles, the ministry official said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department policy, and refused to identify the U.S. general.
But Kim Yong-kyu, a U.S. military spokesman, said Maj. Gen. Frank Panter of the Seoul command told the deputies on Thursday the issue could be discussed at annual defense ministerial talks, or through other channels if South Korea proposes it.
Panter was responding to a question from one of the aides, Kim said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said South Korea has not yet formally requested the U.S. to discuss the revision.
South Korean politicians and military experts have called for the improvement of their country's missile capability, citing North Korea's increasing missile and nuclear threats.
North Korea carried out its second nuclear test in May. On Saturday it test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast, its biggest display of missile firepower in three years.
The North deploys hundreds of missiles that have all of South Korea and Japan within their striking range. In April, the North test-launched a long-range rocket believed capable of reaching Alaska.
The restriction on the South's missile capability was imposed because of concerns over a regional arms race. Under a 1979 accord with the U.S., South Korea had been barred from developing a missile with a range longer than 110 miles (180 kilometers) until 2001 when it was allowed to extend the range to 186 miles (300 kilometers).
In April, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo told the National Assembly it was time "to review" the restriction and discuss the matter with the U.S., days after the North test-fired a long-range rocket that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean.
The missile accord still allows South Korea to develop a cruise missile without range restriction as long as its payload is under 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms). Cruise missiles can be intercepted more easily than ballistic missiles because of their slower speed, experts say.
Media reports say South Korea has been developing a cruise missile with a range of 930 miles (1,500 kilometers).
South Korea does not publicize the location of its missile facilities so it is difficult to know how much of North Korea is currently within range.
The distance from Seoul to the northernmost part of North Korea is about 400 miles (640 kilometers). The North Korean capital of Pyongyang is about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from Seoul.
The Security Council passed Resolution 1874 last month to punish North Korea after its May 25 nuclear test. The country, already banned from conducting ballistic missile tests under previous resolutions, is also forbidden from selling arms and weapons-related material.
The resolution allows other countries to request boarding and inspection of North Korean ships suspected of transporting illicit cargo, though the vessels do not have to give permission. North Korea is believed to earn money from selling missile technology and weapons.
The first North Korean ship to be subject to possible searches under the resolution has likely arrived back home after leaving port last month, the South Korean Defense Ministry official said.
The Kang Nam 1 is believed to have entered the port of Nampo on North Korea's western coast late Monday, the official said. He said South Korea was trying to obtain confirmation of the vessel's return.
The U.S. Navy had tracked the cargo vessel. The ship, which was believed destined for Myanmar, suddenly turned back on June 28.