Defense Secretary Warns Seoul Not to Buy Russian Arms


Defense Secretary William S. Cohen warned South Korea on Saturday that it could endanger U.S. aircraft--and cause political fallout in the United States--if it buys sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missiles rather than a U.S. product.

As he began his first trip to Asia as defense chief, Cohen said that if, South Korea deployed the Russian-made SA-12 missile, the weapons could improperly lock on to U.S. aircraft that patrol the heavily fortified Korean peninsula.

And he said that, if Seoul chose the Russian product rather than the U.S. counterpart, Raytheon’s Patriot missile, the choice would spark anger in Congress, where lawmakers appropriate millions of dollars for South Korea’s defense each year.


“It would not play well in Congress at all,” said Cohen, whose six-day trip will take him to Japan and South Korea.

South Korea’s purchases of discount-priced Russian military equipment have become a touchy issue in U.S.-Korean relations. To some South Koreans, freedom to buy from non-U.S. manufacturers has become a matter of national pride.

U.S. officials have told South Korea that they would not object if Seoul bought a small number of the missiles--half a dozen batteries or fewer--for training and research purposes. But they have warned that the equipment lacks the specialized software that prevents the American-made Patriots from accidentally targeting U.S. aircraft.

“Obviously, I’m sure the Russians are offering a very good deal,” Cohen said. But he said there was “something more involved here” than cash and that “it would not be a good deal, I think, overall, for our relationship.”

In their search for export markets, the Russians have recently approached almost every country in Asia about buying a full range of Russian weaponry. Moscow’s economic ties with South Korea have become increasingly close in recent years as it has backed away from the isolated North Korean regime that it regards as unpredictable and short of cash.

U.S. officials already have raised the issue with the South Koreans in several high-level settings. Seoul’s decision on the missiles is expected soon, and it could signal how South Korea intends to act on other arms deals with the Russians.


In comments to reporters, Cohen also insisted that North Korea may be around as a separate state for many years, despite many analysts’ predictions that the underdeveloped Stalinist regime could crumble at any moment.

Cohen also warned China that it will suffer in the international community if it does not respect the rights of Hong Kong once the British colony is returned to Beijing rule July 1.

“If they were to become in any way oppressive, to start cracking down in ways that the outside world will view with apprehension,” there will be a “reaction from the outside community,” he said.