April 13, 2012 11:31 am

Seoul warns on N Korea firepower threat

South Korea has warned the international community not to dismiss the dangers posed by North Korea’s missiles after a satellite launch failed on Friday.

Security experts argue Pyongyang will use its experience from the failure to improve the already impressive firepower of its ballistics programme, that may already be able to strike the western US.

Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea’s foreign minister, insisted the launch was a threat to “peace and security” despite its failure.

Baek Seung-joo, researcher at Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, cautioned against underestimating North Korea’s ballistic technology.

“Although today’s launch failed, North Korea will find out the causes of the failure and try to address the problems. If they keep testing such rockets and make up for their technological weakness, their missile technology will develop further,” he said.

He added North Korea had already fired a rocket almost 4,000km in 2009, meaning that its most powerful missiles could probably fly more than 6,000km if properly fuelled and primed.

However, Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert at Tokyo's Waseda University, said Pyongyang’s scientists lacked the resources to perfect a multi-stage rocket that could deliver a satellite. “Simply speaking, the North Koreans don't have the technology. There are very low-tech,” he said.

Nevertheless, both Seoul and Washington are wary of what Pyongyang can do. They fear North Korea’s next step would be to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit on to a missile that could reach the US. This would become more technically feasible if North Korea carried out another nuclear warhead test soon, as Seoul and Washington fear it may.

South Korea’s fears about North Korea’s increasing ballistic strength are pushing it to try to scrap its informal agreement with the US that limits its own ballistics work.

President Lee Myung-bak announced last month he would seek to withdraw from a 2001 memorandum of understanding with the US in which Seoul had agreed to limit its missiles to a range of 300km. Mr Lee said Seoul had entered this agreement on the understanding that any fighting would be near the border of the two Koreas but protested North Korea’s ballistic advances had now greatly enlarged the potential conflict zone.

Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said: “The US will drag its feet about South Korea’s request for extending its missile range, and will try to settle things with UN Security Council sanctions, but the most effective way to counter North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats would be to strengthen our deterrents against them.

“We should also send a strong message that US nuclear weapons should be reintroduced into South Korea to deter the North’s nuclear threats if the North pushes ahead with a third nuclear test.”

Additional reporting by Mure Dickie in Tokyo

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