The Obama administration recently revised a pact with South Korea, allowing South Korea's military to extend the range of its ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometers.
Since the news was released, some comments over it have been too sensational. Some hold that the US has been making use of South Korea to achieve its aim to pivot to Asia. Some even believe the US plans to build a strategic encirclement to contain China. But these are misleading viewpoints.
Under an agreement signed between South Korea and the US in 1979, which was then revised in 2001, South Korea's ballistic missiles are limited to a range of 300 kilometers and a 500 kilogram payload. This is to prevent South Korea from having the capability to strike North Korea. The ballistic missiles will only have defense functions, and South Korea wouldn't have any chance to contain the US.
However in recent years, as North Korea accelerates its speed of developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of various ranges, South Korea has come to believe that the limited range of 300 kilometers has largely restricted its ability to strike back.
In other words, if conflict broke out, South Korea would not be able to effectively strike the important military facilities in the northern regions of North Korea, and thus would be unable to secure the stability of the Korean Peninsula.
Considering that Washington will hand over wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul after 2015, extending the range of South Korea's ballistic missiles has become a must.
Therefore, at the beginning of 2009, South Korea set up a special team to research into the issue and discuss about the new range. Since September 2010, South Korea has started formal negotiations with the US, seeking to revise the pact that restricts the limit of the range of its ballistic missiles.
The US initially rejected the demands of South Korea to extend the range to 800 kilometers, given that South Korea should not only take into consideration its own striking capabilities but also those of the US. Meanwhile, the US worried that an extended range could render China and Russia possible targets, giving them cause for complaint.
The US compromised with South Korea in the beginning of this month, reportedly because of the internal and external policies adopted by North Korea's new leadership.
North Korea has stated clearly that it will continue its "military first" policy. It has proclaimed itself a nuclear-armed nation in its new constitution. North Korea announced in April that it was planning to launch "special actions" against South Korea. It has publicly called for a "great war" for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Nonetheless, the US insisted on two conditions. The US opposes South Korea's development of solid fuel for its ballistic missiles, because the solid fuel has a strong propellant power and the preparation time for sending a solid-fuel missile is short. It also opposes the civilian use of solid fuel.
Meanwhile, the US insists that the weight of the missile warhead should be restricted to 500 kilograms if its ballistic missiles' range is going to be expanded to 800 kilometers.
South Korea mainly takes its confrontation with the North into consideration when extending the range of its ballistic missiles. And the US initially rejected South Korea's demand because it didn't want to provoke China. Its compromise with South Korea should not be viewed as containment of China either.
Those who say that the move by the US and South Korea is targeted at China may ignite the conflict between China and the two. And their views could worsen China's geopolitical environment. We should keep a clear mind about this.
The author is an expert on North Korea at the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC. firstname.lastname@example.org