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Author: Bo Ram Kwon, Korea Institute for Defense Analysis

South Korea is under the spotlight for unusual reasons. On 15 September 2021, North Korea tested a new long-range cruise missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. South Korea immediately tested its own capabilities including a ballistic missile, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, a long-range air-to-surface missile, a solid-fuel engine for space rockets and then fired its own submarine-launched ballistic missile.

These competing military displays have raised questions about the strategic objectives of South Korea’s build-up of technology-intensive national defence capabilities.

South Korea’s defence budget shows its determination to build a more advanced and independent military force. The Ministry of National Defense’s Mid-Term Defense Plan for 2022–26 allocated 315.2 trillion won (US$271.5 billion) to defence — a 5 per cent increase over the previous five-year plan. The plan anticipates an average annual budget increase of 5.8 per cent: 106.7 trillion won (US$90 billion) will go towards Force Improvement Programs on cutting-edge technology in the military.

South Korea’s evolving threat perceptions, ongoing defence reform and global aspirations as a US ally and middle power inform its renewed focus on defence.

The security environment in Northeast Asia has become increasingly unstable. North Korea’s advance in nuclear and missile technology and its resolve to deploy tactical nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Seoul. China’s regional and global hegemonic ambitions have led to rapid growth in its strategic capabilities, increasing the likelihood and impact of intervention should a contingency on the Korean Peninsula occur.

As competition between the United States and China intensifies, the North Korea nuclear issue risks being reduced to a peripheral problem or one to be ‘managed’ rather than solved. Together, these threat factors incentivise South Korea to pursue a multi-pronged national defence strategy that aims to strengthen deterrence against North Korea and China in the immediate and longer term.

South Korea is pursuing Defense Reform 2.0 to modernise its forces to maximise efficiency and compensate for demographic shifts that will reduce standing troop levels. The latest Mid-Term Defense Plan aims to conclude these reforms successfully. The main driver for reform is the notion that high-technology advancements lead to new military capabilities tailored to an increasingly uncertain future, and that the military should expand its traditional frontiers to include cyber and space domains. The directive is that South Korea should become less reliant on foreign defence sources while it grows independent conventional capabilities to respond to the North Korean nuclear threat.

South Korea recognises that conventional weapons have become more formidable against a nuclear arsenal with the advantage of higher credibility and technological advances that enable prompt response. Revised missile guidelines resulted in rapid advancements in precision-strike capabilities that invited queries about South Korea’s nuclear latency and end goal.

The main thrust of Seoul’s defence reforms have focused on force structure changes and weapons procurement. These reforms are a work in progress. There is a need for parallel advancements in qualitative military doctrine as well as in substantial C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities. Securing stable funding and prioritising areas of investment in close consultation with the United States is also an ongoing task.

The specific timing of South Korea’s targeted increase in military expenditure is a function of, but not limited to, Seoul’s political determination to expedite the transfer of wartime operational control. Note that South Korea’s investments in precision-strike capabilities and others were planned and initiated prior to 2017. Former US president Donald Trump administration’s disrespect for alliances and the underlying change of tone in US alliance strategy heightened a sense of urgency for Seoul to take national security matters in its own hands.

South Korea harbours global aspirations to be a credible US ally and middle power. Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden declared in May 2021 that the US–South Korea bilateral relationship ‘extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula’ and is ‘grounded in our shared values and anchors our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region’.

As South Korea seeks to consolidate its security cooperation with the United States and the Indo-Pacific region, it has pledged substantial defence technology collaboration with US counterparts as well as diversification of security partnerships with like-minded states, including Australia, India and ASEAN members.

South Korea’s proactive defence drive is a testament to heightened security anxiety, a resolve to deter nuclear and other complex threats while preserving autonomy and a desire to make meaningful contributions to the Indo-Pacific security architecture.

Concerns about whether South Korea’s strategic initiatives align with those of the United States, whether its advanced conventional capabilities will exacerbate the perceived military imbalance on the Korean Peninsula and create crisis instability, and whether a regional and potentially nuclear arms race might intensify highlight the delicate nature of this security dilemma in international relations.

The bottom line is that without a dramatic alteration in denuclearisation negotiations, North Korea will continue to drive South Korea down this path of proactive national defence.

Bo Ram Kwon is an Associate Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA).

A version of this article appears in the most recent edition of News JU Quarterly, ‘The Korean Way’, Vol 13, No 4.

The post Putting South Korea’s proactive national defence strategy in perspective first appeared on News JU.

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