Photos show S. Korean bid to extend range of missiles

U.S. fears plan could spur arms race with N. Korea

November 14, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence analysts have discovered evidence that South Korea is trying to develop longer-range ballistic missiles while keeping some of the program's key aims secret from Washington, U.S. officials say.

U.S. spy satellites detected fresh evidence of the program's extent last year, and U.S. concerns intensified after a missile test this year, the officials said. The United States, South Korea's closest ally, has been tracking its missile research carefully for years.

President Clinton and his top aides discussed their latest concerns with top South Korean officials this summer. The situation has injected an element of uncertainty into relations at a time when both allies are warily watching military developments in North Korea, which has ambitions to build long-range missiles. The Clinton administration has been pressing North Korea to restrain its missile programs.

The spy satellite photos revealed last year that South Korea had built a rocket motor test station without notifying the United States, according to Pentagon analysts who reviewed the intelligence. The station, which includes a large concrete or tempered steel cradle in which rocket motors are locked for firing tests, appeared to have been built secretly as part of a larger South Korean ballistic missile program, the officials said.

In April, South Korea conducted a short-flight test of a new missile that appeared to violate its agreements with the United States, American officials said.

For Clinton administration officials already deeply worried about North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, South Korea's apparent efforts to develop a strategic capability have raised the prospect of a regional arms race at a time when North Korea's stability is increasingly in doubt.

South Korea's missile ambitions prompted Clinton to discuss the issue personally with President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea in July, American officials said.

Administration officials refused to comment directly on the evidence uncovered by the American spy satellites last year, but one acknowledged that parts of the South Korean ballistic missile program have been hidden from the United States.

The officials stressed, however, that no single piece of intelligence had suddenly prompted the administration's efforts to limit South Korea's missile program.

"This is an issue of long-standing concern between us," said one American official. "They have been working on a ballistic missile program for a long time, and this is an issue that is raised with them frequently."

A South Korean government official denied that Seoul has sought to shield parts of its ballistic missile program from the United States.

While no final agreement between the United States and South Korea has been reached, the Clinton administration has signaled to South Korea that it is willing to accept limited improvements on the range of South Korea's ballistic missiles, U.S. officials said.

Under a bilateral agreement with the United States, South Korea has restricted the range of its missiles to about 110 miles.

But the Clinton administration has told Seoul that it will accept an increase in the range of its ballistic missiles to 180 miles.

Yet South Korea appears to be developing missiles with ranges of 300 miles or more to counter North Korean missiles of similar or even longer ranges, U.S. officials and outside experts believe.

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