Washington will provide the "maximum possible" support for Seoul's initiative to develop fighter jets, the State Department said Tuesday, amid skepticism over the project's prospects following the US' refusal to hand over core technologies.
The department has denied export licenses for the four technologies conditionally promised last year to be transferred by US defence giant Lockheed Martin, citing its national technology protection policy. The four are critical in crafting integrated systems for an active electronically scanned array radar, electro optical targeting pod, infrared search-and-track and radio frequency jammer.
Instead, the two countries' defence ministers agreed last October to set up a working group to boost co-operation to facilitate the 18.1 trillion won ($15.55 billion) programme, nicknamed KF-X or Boramae. South Korea hopes to unveil its first KF-16-class warplanes by 2025 and deploy 120 units by 2032.
"The US continues to support the Republic of Korea's defence programs and priorities through the transfer of many of our most sensitive defence technologies. We seek to support the KF-X indigenous fighter programme to the maximum extent possible," department spokesperson Katina Adams told Yonhap News.
"The US government is in discussions with Lockheed Martin to address ROK areas of concern. We will continue to work closely with Lockheed Martin throughout this process to ensure continued support to the KF-X programme."
Her remarks came as the project's prospects appear to be turning even gloomier in the face of growing speculation that Washington is likely to veto the export of more of the other 21 technologies, for which Seoul's Defence Ministry and Defence Acquisition Program Administration had been confident of securing approval.
Lockheed also requested more details such as specifications of subtechnologies and the time frame for their transfer during a meeting last month in Seoul with the South Korean delegation led by the state-run weapons procurement agency.
While little headway has been made on the working group scheme, the delegation is scheduled for a second round of talks with the defence firm in Washington on Wednesday.
Adams said nothing had been decided. "Programs like the KF-X are large and complex. As a result, there is often an iterative process whereby export licenses are amended as the programme matures and becomes better defined."
Meanwhile, the department also expressed concerns over North Korea's test last Saturday of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, saying it constituted a breach of international resolutions banning the use of ballistic technology.
Pyongyang is believed to have tried to fire a KN-11 missile from a submarine in the East Sea that day, but it failed to soar from the waters, sources said.
"We continue to send a very strong and clear and consistent message ― I would say the US as well as all of its partners in the six-party Talks, the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and as well as Russia ― to North Korea to refrain from any violations of UN Security Council resolutions or any other actions that raise tensions in the region and threaten international peace and security," said deputy spokesperson Mark Toner at a regular news briefing Tuesday in Washington.