South Korea’s Unsustainable Military Build-Up

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ROKS Dokdo underway in the Sea of Japan during joint operation Invincible Spirit. Image: US Navy

South Korea takes immense pride in its powerful military. According to Globalfirepower.com, South Korea (or the ROK) ranked 8th overall in military strength. Indeed, Scott Snyder’s recent CSIS report argues that one noteworthy trend of late “is South Korea’s emergence as a producer rather than a consumer of international security goods despite an ongoing threat from North Korea (or DPRK).” However, there are several factors at play that do not bode well for the ROK’s recent military build-up. They show that absent America’s long-term presence in the Far East, the ROK will have difficulty meeting its security needs.

The Operational Control transfer scheduled for 2015 and the perceived threat from North Korea are key to understanding ROK’s capital-intensive militarization. ROK Navy Rear Admiral (Lower Half) Kim Duk-ki wrote that North Korea’s “asymmetric assets [in the form of special operations forces, cyber threats, and nuclear weapons] … will pose a serious threat to the ROK military.”

To offset its strategic vulnerabilities, the ROK implemented a vigorous procurement and acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry and indigenous research and development programs for its local defense industries. To update its aging combat aircraft, the ROK Air Force plans to purchase sixty stealth fighters through its KFX-III (Korean Fighter eXperimental-III) Program.  The ROK military, however, shelved plans to purchase  the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawks, given what they believed were prohibitive costs. Another outcome of South Korea’s militarization is the expansion of the ROK Navy. ROKN’s active anti-piracy campaigns in the Gulf of Aden, and its blue-water navy warships capable of “operat[ing] anywhere in the world,” may suggest that the ROK has become a great regional naval power and beyond.

Despite ROK’s latest military build-up, defense analysts still express concerns about ROK’s ability to defend itself after the wartime OPCON transfer in 2015. Their concerns are threefold: the budgetary and institutional handicaps inherent within South Korea’s strategic framework and the domestic zeitgeist that is opposed to further militarization of the ROK. One must also consider South Korea’s territorial dispute involving Dokdo/Takeshima which has strained the ROK-Japan alliance, and South Korea’s growing concerns about handling China’s ascendancy.

Of the three factors, perhaps most significant are the budgetary and operational limitations within the ROK military.  According to the CSIS Report on Asian Defense Spending, increase in “South Korea’s total defense spending did not unfold in a linear manner.” If “[a]nalyzed by percentage share of total defense spending, personnel spending remained nearly constant for all years, whereas Operation & Maintenance experienced growth, and Defense Procurement and Defense Research & Development  both declined.” Michael Raska believes that such trend reflects “the political will to allocate the required resources has been constrained by economic pressures and the imperative to sustain South Korea’s socio-economic stability and growth.” Worse still, Raska contends that ROK military’s operational capabilities are severely undercut by “institutional rigidity, intellectual conservatism and path dependence” and “a range of technical and inter-operability problems in conducting full-spectrum joint military operations with their US counterparts.” In light of America’s current plans to realign its military presence in Asia, these shortcomings are particularly troubling.

Lastly, as Lt. Scott Cheney-Peters and Richard Weitz show in separate articles, the ROK citizens remain stridently opposed to the central government’s endeavors to fortify Paeknyŏng and Cheju Islands. Of the two, attempts to convert Cheju into a staging area and a forward operating base for ROKN have met the fiercest opposition. In addition to deep-seated regionalism at play similar to the dynamics on Okinawa, Christine Ahn contends that 94 percent of the Kangjŏng residents voted against the base because they feared their island may serve American interests in the nascent Sino-American rivalry. Indeed, some experts agree that the ROK’s strained relationship with China and Japan “where [the] situation is further complicated by growing nationalism in all three countries,” may provide partial explanations for ROK’s recent militarization.

However, the above factors do not mean that South Korea’s militarization threatens the regional stability of Northeast Asia.  If anything, ROK’s new role as a middle power global security contributor grew out of its “global stake in stability [which] requires security planners to consider Korea’s security needs in a broader context.” More important, as a thriving, industrialized democracy, ROK continues to exercise positive soft power.

ROK’s strategic shortcomings amid grim geopolitical realities indicate that its ambitious military build-up cannot be sustained. South Korea’s economic stability and physical security lie in the hands of other actors. The ROK strives to live in harmony with China and Japan because it cannot achieve strategic parity with them. Setting aside deep-seated emotional rancor in favor of pragmatic strategic alignments would ensure harmony between South Korea and its neighbors. Most importantly, the United States must continue help the ROK to rise to the occasion as a truly great middle power.

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Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). His writings have appeared in the Naval Institute’s blog, East Asia Forum, and the World Outline, as well as GJIA Online. He will begin a Master of Arts program in International Security Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in September 2014.

15 Comments

  • Jeong Lee
    January 29, 2013

    Jeong Lee

    As the author of this piece, I cordially invite all my readers to comment on my analysis as they see fit.

  • January 29, 2013

    Maya Boneva

    All of efforts should be put in order to stop North Korea nuclear program. This is the most dangerous regime because no cooperation, no collaboration will work. The military company will never allow something to be changed. Let the whole world think Kim Chen-Ung is the decision maker. No, he simply is living in his paradise. The war is for military people as always. North Korea is starving the world institutions should save the people from their own rulers. There is no need such a hidden place to exist.

  • January 29, 2013

    Jacques de Goldfiem

    Very professionnal article. As a French specialist of security and geopolitics in Asia I will archive this article in “Security in Asia” on The New Asia Observer
    http://www.asiaobserver.org/category/news-and-current-events/security-in-asia

  • […] South Korea takes immense pride in its powerful military. According to Globalfirepower.com South Korea (or the ROK) ranked 8th overall in military strength. Indeed, Scott Snyder’s recent CSIS report argues that one noteworthy trend of late “is South Korea’s emergence as a producer rather than a consumer of international security goods despite an ongoing threat from North Korea (or DPRK). http://journal.georgetown.edu/2013/01/28/south-koreas-unsustainable-military-build-up-by-jeong-lee/c… […]

  • […] School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. Also, my latest piece on the ROK military build-up has just been published via Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.Needless to say, I was and […]

  • Jeong Lee
    January 29, 2013

    Jeong Lee

    Thanks, everyone, for your gracious remarks.

    Regarding what to do about DPRK, I don’t think we should approach this issue emotionally. As I argued in my previous piece on East Asia Forum, the best thing to do would be to grant diplomatic recognition to the DPRK.

    If they really are existential threats, then, the United States should hold off on the OPCON transfer to a later time. As this article shows, the truth is, the ROK cannot meet its own defense needs on its own. I should also mention here that I have friends in the ROK military–many of them Air Force officers–and the one thing they do consistently is bitterly complain about the caliber of leadership among their own generals. Don’t get me wrong, many ROK officers–especially, junior officers!–are highly dedicated, competent, and willing to fight. Not so their brass.

  • January 30, 2013

    Tom Arms

    As the author of The Encyclopedia of the Cold War, I found it fascinating to see how Korea’s military role in Asia and the world has changed since the 60’s and 70’s. I would say that the Seoul government needs to remain focused on the clear and present danger of North Korea and now allow itself to be distracted by the sexier blue water navy role. Leave such things as the anti-piracy measures to countries not facing a direct threat at home.

  • Jeong Lee
    January 30, 2013

    Jeong Lee

    @Tom Arms

    Setting its house in order is always the right thing to do. But I also think that the ROK has been active in peace-keeping operations (PKOs) and anti-piracy campaigns to cement its alliance with its neighbors.

    What they should be doing is to extend the olive branch to the DPRK to preclude the possibility of another fratricidal war.

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