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SEOUL — South Korea can buy Global Hawk unmanned planes despite an international treaty that was previously thought to block any such transactions, a Ministry of Defense official said Wednesday.

The official said South Korea learned about the possibility during high-level security discussions July 23 in Washington.

However, whether the costly system is still in South Korea’s plans to upgrade its military technology hasn’t been decided.

"All we can say now is that the review is under way for the purchasing project, including the Global Hawk, as part of an arms improvement plan under the Defense Reform modernization program," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In January, the South Korean assembly cut 5.8 billion won (about $6.2 million) that was earmarked in its defense budget for eventual procurement of Global Hawks because buying them from U.S.-based Northrop Grumman would have violated the Missile Technology Control Regime, defense officials said at the time.

The regime was created in 1987 by the United States and six other nations to control unmanned systems capable of delivering nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The regime now includes 34 countries, and in 1992, it was expanded to include unmanned airplanes.

Global Hawks, used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, can remain airborne for up to 36 hours, according to Northrop Grumman.

The manufacturer estimated costs for its first-generation model at $21 million for each jet, according to earlier reports. Electronic sensors cost $11 million and the mission control system used to control multiple aircraft costs another $11 million. A 2006 Government Accountability Office study criticized the program for alleged massive cost overruns.

The Shadow 200 UAVs more commonly used by the U.S. Army in South Korea cost about $275,000, according to

However, Shadows operate at a 15,000-foot ceiling and often fly lower. They also carry far less payload and have about a tenth the wingspan.

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