North Korea crisis pushes South Korea to gun up

SEOUL, Aug 11 (Reuters) - The escalating threat arising from nuclear-armed North Korea's recent series of missile tests is prompting South Korea to beef up its military muscle and experts warn it could spur an arms buildup elsewhere in Northeast Asia.

South Korea and Japan are accustomed to the North's frequent threats to attack. But the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has raised fears of a sudden clash along the world's most militarized border dividing the two Koreas, which might quickly escalate to all-out war.

After North Korea's second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 28, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered a speedy deployment of the controversial U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system, reversing his earlier decision to postpone it pending an environmental review.

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This week, the U.S. Defence Department said it was "actively" considering revising bilateral ballistic missile guidelines with South Korea to allow Seoul to build more powerful missiles -- at the South's request.

Moon told U.S. President Donald Trump in a telephone conversation on Monday South Korea also wants to build a nuclear-powered submarine, presidential officials said.

"All of this could lead to further militarization of South Korea," said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

ATTACKING GUAM

South Korea, which spends around a tenth of its annual budget on defense, is already home to some 625,000 local soldiers and more than 28,000 U.S. troops. The country, still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty, has deployed the U.S.-built Patriot missile defense system, as well as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.

Trump warned the North and its leader Kim Jong Un against attacking Guam or U.S. allies on Friday, a day after the isolated country said it was finalizing by mid-August a plan to launch four intermediate range missiles toward waters off the U.S. Pacific territory.

"If North Korea actually launches Hwasong-12 missiles towards Guam, they're going to do it with all their other missiles, artillery and tanks ready for action," said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. "And we should be prepared too."

Even before the latest spike in tensions, South Korea was seeking to enhance its missile-defense capabilities in the face of the unprecedented pace of North Korean missile tests.

SEE ALSO: Trump: military solutions 'locked and loaded' against North Korea threat

Japan, worried its ballistic missile defenses could be overwhelmed by swarm attacks or circumvented by warheads launched on lofted trajectories, is likely to acquire a ground-based version of the Aegis missile defense system. It is also mulling the acquisition of munitions that would allow it to strike North Korea missile sites.

"The greatest threat to both states remains shorter range artillery, artillery rockets and stockpiles of short-to-medium range missiles. The focus will primarily remain upon bolstering defensive rather than offensive capabilities," said Reed Foster, a defense analyst for IHS Jane's.

"I don't believe that there will be any significant altering of East Asian procurement strategies, despite the rhetoric emanating from North Korea, principally because for them the threat hasn't altered drastically," Reed added.

SOUTH GOES NUCLEAR?

Conservative lawmakers in Seoul in recent days have even called for a "nuclear balance" on the peninsula, saying Seoul should ask Washington to redeploy U.S. nuclear weapons if South Korea is unable to develop its own.

The United States withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1992, when the two Koreas agreed to make the peninsula nuclear free. In violation of that agreement as well as U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests.

"Now is the right time to actively look at bringing back tactical nuclear weapons," Chung Woo-taik, floor leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told Reuters. "North Korea broke the denuclearisation agreement a long time ago."

RELATED: North Korea's missiles

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North Korea's Missiles
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The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 22, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
The long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) is launched during a test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People cheer as a missile is driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading 'Pukkuksong' during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA on the spot in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERSATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fire drill of ballistic rockets by Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force is pictured in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 6, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
FILE PHOTO - An underwater test-firing of a strategic submarine ballistic missile is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016. KCNA/File Photo via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
A view of a firing contest among multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries selected from large combined units of the KPA, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 21, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
Ballistic rocket is seen launching during a drill by the Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 21, 2016. KCNA/via ReutersATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.Ã TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 23, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A new multiple launch rocket system is test fired in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 4, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
A rocket is launched during a demonstration of a new large-caliber multiple rocket launching system attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) at an unknown location, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 22, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA/Files ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A rocket is fired during a drill by anti-aircraft units of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 3, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
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Reintroducing nuclear weapons remains an unlikely scenario, as that would undermine demands from Seoul and Washington for North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.

For now, officials are instead focused on changing the missile guidelines, which allow Seoul to have ballistic missiles with a flight range capped at 800 km (497 miles), topped with a maximum 500 kg (1,102 pounds) warhead.

South Korea is less focused on increasing the flight range, as that could face opposition from neighbors including China, Russia and Japan, and the 800-km range limit covers all of North Korea in any case, senior government officials said.

Rather, Seoul wants to double the maximum payload to 1,000 kg or greater, powerful enough to target underground bunkers or nuclear sites within the North, the officials said.

That's still a fraction of the size of "the mother of all bombs," which the United States dropped on a suspected Islamic State target in Afghanistan in April. The 21,600-pound GBU-43 bomb is one of the largest non-nuclear devices used in combat.

($1 = 1,141.0900 won) (Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim in SEOUL, Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Bill Tarrant)

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