By Sung-won Shim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has reached a landmark agreement with the United States to extend the range of Seoul's ballistic missiles by more than twice the current limit to counter the threat from North Korea, the government said on Sunday.
The move to significantly boost the South's missile capabilities along with development of advanced aerial reconnaissance vehicles is likely to rattle the communist North, which has remained at odds since the 1950-53 Korean War left the peninsula divided.
It may also stoke concern in China, Japan and Russia, parts of which would be within range of the new missiles.
Under the agreement, South Korea can develop missiles up to a range of 800 kms (497 mile) from the current ceiling of 300 kms (186 mile), Chun Young-woo, top secretary to President Lee Myung-bak for foreign and security affairs, told reporters.
He said the United States and South Korea also agreed to maintain the maximum payload for a South Korean-developed ballistic missile at the current level of 500 kilograms (1,102 lbs).
However, if Seoul chose to develop a missile with shorter ranges, it could increase the payload accordingly.
South Korea has also been allowed to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, with an unlimited payload weight if the flying distance is within 300 kilometers.
Seoul has for years sought to extend its missile range to deter the North, which it said had developed missiles that could reach every corner of the country. It also wanted to increase the payload for the UAVs and develop not only reconnaissance UAVs but also combat drones.
"The most important goal for our government to revise the missile guidelines is deterring North Korea's military provocations," Chun said.
Currently, all of South Korea as well as U.S. military installations in Japan and Guam, are within the range of North Korean missile attacks, according to South Korean government data.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States is in regular consultations with South Korea and the "new missile guidelines" were designed to improve the ability to defend against North Korea's ballistic missiles. "The revisions are a prudent, proportional, and specific response" to North Korea, he told reporters on Air Force One.
"The onus here is on North Korea, as it has been, to abide by its international obligations to fulfill its obligations under two United Nations Security Council resolutions," Carney said. It was "absolutely legitimate" for South Korea to take actions in consultation with the United States to respond to a threat posed by North Korea's ballistic missile program, he said.
In April, North Korea was condemned by the U.N. Security Council after a failed long-range rocket launch. U.S. allies including South Korea deemed it a disguised test for the North to upgrade its ballistic missile technology despite Pyongyang's claim that it was aimed to put a satellite into orbit for peaceful purpose.
Washington had sought to discourage South Korea from developing longer-range ballistic missiles in keeping with a voluntary international arms-control pact known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). (Reporting by Sung-won Shim, additional reporting by Jeff Mason on Air Force One; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)