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U.S. and South Korean forces conducted missile drills Aug. 29 in South Korea.   © Yonhap/Kyodo
Politics

North Korea threat: Trump approves more Seoul firepower

Missile weight limit scrapped, approval for Tokyo also tweeted

SEOUL -- Washington has given Seoul the go-ahead to deploy more destructive missiles after years of holding back, as the allies build up forces -- including a unit tasked with taking out North Korea's leadership -- in response to the growing threat posed by Pyongyang.

Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in agreed Monday to scrap the weight limit on South Korea's ballistic missile warheads -- a change Seoul has been urging for some time. Under the two countries' joint missile policy, South Korea had been barred from maintaining warheads over 500kg. The range on its missiles remains restricted to 800km.

Separately, Trump on Tuesday signaled support for South Korea and fellow U.S. ally Japan acquiring more advanced American weapons.

"I am allowing Japan and South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States," Trump wrote on Twitter.

Pressure for revision

The missile policy, along with a nuclear power agreement, was initially reached between the U.S. and the government of Park Chung-hee, South Korea's president from 1963 to 1979, to keep Seoul from developing nuclear weapons of its own. It has been revised twice before, in 2001 and 2012, to extend the maximum range of the South's missiles in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. But many in the South still worried the country's arsenal did not offer adequate protection against a missile attack by the North.

Moon broached the topic of another revision with Trump during an Aug. 7 phone call, presidential Blue House sources say. He also floated the notion of South Korea developing nuclear-powered submarines, which Seoul views as necessary to counter Pyongyang's submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The country's current diesel-powered fleet needs frequent refueling, making it less suitable for long missions.

Military options

Though Moon has long touted dialogue, rather than pressure, as a means of improving relations on the peninsula, Pyongyang's intensifying provocations seem to have brought his administration closer to Washington and Tokyo's harder line. After a missile launch in May, the newly inaugurated president ordered his National Security Council to accelerate work on a three-pronged defense plan to guard against a potential attack by the North.

The first element in this plan is the so-called kill chain -- the process of identifying targets in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile capabilities and taking them out with pre-emptive strikes if a launch was determined to be imminent. Patriot missile interceptor systems would provide the second line of defense.

If these steps fail, the final option would be a full-scale attack on Pyongyang designed to incapacitate the North's leadership. Defense Minister Song Young-moo said Monday that the South will assemble by Dec. 1 a special military unit to conduct such a "decapitation strike." The country has also revived plans to deploy five reconnaissance satellites by 2023 that would watch for missile launches in the North.

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