|Anasis 2, a communications satellite for Korea, is launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, July 20. / UPI-Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
A newly revised missile guidelines agreement between South Korea and the United States will contribute to a smoother transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean military forces from Washington to Seoul, according to diplomatic experts, Thursday.
However, they denied speculation that the new deal has to do with the U.S.'s policy to get Korea to pay more for the cost of maintaining the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in return, or to use its missile capabilities to help contain China amid growing diplomatic disputes between Washington and Beijing.
On Tuesday, Cheong Wa Dae announced that the allies agreed to lift a decades-long restriction on South Korea's use of solid fuel for its space launch vehicles, adding that this would help advance the military's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
U.S. Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig said this change will have an impact on the transfer of wartime OPCON.
"One of the concerns was that South Korea lacked some of the intelligence-gathering and surveillance capabilities to meet the conditions-based requirements for wartime OPCON transfer. The ability to put its own military intelligence satellites in orbit will be an important boost for ROK capabilities and will reduce ROK dependency on the United States for these systems," Roehrig told The Korea Times.
The allies have been working on the conditions-based OPCON transfer, with the Moon Jae-in administration seeking to retake this by 2022. Korea regained peacetime OPCON in 1994.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and North Korea watcher at the Heritage Foundation, echoed Roehrig's view.
"One of the conditions for the transition of wartime OPCON from the United Nations Command to South Korea requires Seoul to improve its offensive capabilities against North Korea," he told The Korea Times.
"This new missile agreement may be to facilitate OPCON transition by enabling more robust South Korean military capabilities."
In the wake of the lifting of the ban, there is speculation that it was part of negotiations over the special measures agreement (SMA), which determines how much South Korea pays toward the cost of stationing the USFK here. SMA talks have stalled since last September due to U.S. President Donald Trump's demand for a sharp increase in Korea's share.
But diplomatic experts generally disagreed with such speculation.
"I don't see that this is driven by anything the U.S. is seeking. This comes from the South Koreans and their desire to use cheaper solid fuel rockets, and in the long term to develop solid fuel technology for other uses," Daniel Sneider, an expert on Korean and Japanese foreign policy at Stanford University, told The Korea Times.
"The range limits agreement remains in place, which is more important from the U.S. perspective. I don't know of any connection to the cost sharing negotiations and I hesitate to ascribe any coherence to U.S. policy these days."
Klingner also said, "While there is a tendency to seek linkage of issues, this may simply be a continuation of previous U.S. decisions to allow South Korea to incrementally improve its missile capabilities beyond previous agreements."
"Several years ago, Washington allowed Seoul to move beyond Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions to allow South Korean missiles with larger payloads and longer range. That agreement was subsequently revised to allow greater South Korean capabilities," he added.
According to Roehrig, the U.S. has agreed to several changes, with it becoming more and more difficult for it to oppose South Korea's requests for these changes.
"Most recently, the Obama administration agreed to increase the maximum range of missiles from 300 kilometers to 800 kilometers, allowing South Korean missiles to reach all areas of the North. In 2017, the Trump administration agreed to remove entirely the previous payload limit of 500 kilograms but kept the 800-kilometer-range limit. The new agreement to allow solid fuel for space launches is another piece to this story," he said.
Roehrig raised doubts about speculation that the U.S. could deter a rising China through Korea's improved missile capabilities.
"In my view, the suggestion that South Korea's missile capabilities will help contain China is a stretch. If the U.S. hopes this will be the result, there will be disappointment," he said.
"South Korea's missile capabilities will have little impact on China's policies and actions."