29 December 2012
Drones for South Korea
The New York Times


Less than a month after North Korea’s latest missile test, the Obama administration has offered to sell South Korea advanced spy drones so it can keep a closer eye on its northern adversary. The decision raises some concerns, and Congress would be wise to ask a lot of questions before going along, including whether the deal is part of a comprehensive strategy or just a way to penalize North Korea.

The proposed $1.2 billion sale of four Global Hawks made by Northrop Grumman was first requested by South Korea several years ago. The drones, remotely piloted aircraft with enhanced surveillance technology, would expand South Korea’s intelligence-gathering capabilities when it takes over wartime control of its troops from the United States in 2015, as previously agreed. The United States has held wartime command since the Korean War; the Seoul government regained peacetime control of its military in 1994.

South Korea has serious concerns about the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities. But the drones deal would weaken a 34-nation arms agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime. That agreement was created in 1987 to discourage the export of ballistic missiles and other unmanned systems with a range of at least 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, and a payload of more than half a ton that could include nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Under the agreement’s guidelines, there is a strong presumption that requests to buy these systems should be denied.

The agreement has already taken one blow this year, when the administration agreed to let South Korea develop longer-range ballistic missiles. Is the proposed deal important enough to make another exception? The burden is on the administration to explain why selling Global Hawks to South Korea does not undermine President Obama’s arms control goals and give cover for Russia, China and others to also sell systems that exceed the guidelines.

While the drones are intended for intelligence gathering, they could be modified to carry a weapon. If the United States proceeds with the sale, it should include a commitment that South Korea will not arm the drones.

North Korea, despite its nuclear weapons program and threatening behavior, is militarily inferior to the South. The two countries have had several violent confrontations in recent years. Equipping South Korea with drones that could reach all of North Korea could increase the risk of inadvertent war during a crisis. To guard against that threat, there would need to be close American-South Korean coordination.

Keeping the pressure on North Korea, including the use of sanctions, is important. But the administration, wedded to an ineffective approach called “strategic patience,” also needs to look for ways to re-engage North Korea. South Korea’s new president-elect, Park Geun-hye, has expressed interest in resuming a dialogue with the North. President Obama should support and follow that example.

Global Network