Wednesday, August 09, 2006


There has been so much noise in the IKK of late bad-mouthing South Korea. South Korea has isolated itself, they say, against its allies and those who would view North Korea as an imminent threat. South Korea is going to be sorry, they say, for straining relations in the US-ROK Alliance. It has always been the case that the IKK leaned more toward a hard-line view but the recent echoes bouncing off the walls lead one to think that there is no-one with a dissenting view. Yet, I disagree with most of what is being said out there. Here are some of my views: South Korea did the right thing in cutting aid to North Korea but not condemning them. Engagement with North Korea was a good idea before the missile crisis and remains a good idea. It is impossible for South Korea to be isolated over North Korea - anything any country is trying to achieve with North Korea directly impacts the South. I shudder to think of the animosity that would erupt if US caused North Korea's implosion and then expected the South to step in and unify on call. Unification must happen under the agreed terms of both Koreas or else it is going to be horribly ugly. I think sanctions are a waste of time with absolutely no financial or rhetorical value against a country that voluntarily chooses isolation. And, I think the ex-defence ministers proclaiming doom and gloom for the US-ROK Alliance are exaggerating the problem and just vying for a bit of attention. In sum, I am sick of the negativity that undervalues South Korea's ability and its right to pursue its own interests and policies. The opinions of the increasingly loud, right-wing blogs in the IKK are not shared by this blog. And John Bolton is ridiculous twat with less diplomatic skills than foul-smelling roadkill.

Wherefore the Negativity?

The US-Korea Alliance is undergoing a period of transition. The US has announced its intention to reduce its forces on the peninsula and reposition its bases. This is in accordance with broader US military shifts to become more fleet-of-foot on a global scale. In light of reduced forces, Korea is seeking to gain self-reliance defence capabilities. On the surface these would appear to be mutually reinforcing activities that should lead to easy cooperation. Alas, social and political forces have combined to make the road ahead pitted with obstacles that are threatening the existence of the alliance.

The US desire to reduce its forces in Korea is part of a broader plan to restructure is global military posture. Greater mobility is seen as a way for US forces to quickly be deployed to any variety of trouble spots that may erupt throughout the Asia region (or globally). Such a move would put the US-Korea alliance on a par with similar alliances such as with that with Australia and other nations. The premise for these alliances is a recognition of shared values that are worth defending. This view is very far removed from the traditional rationale of the US-Korea alliance, which is isolated in perspective to deterring North Korea and defending the South. Reducing forces in Korea is symptomatic of tectonic changes in the nature of the relationship between US and Korea.

Rather than be pushed, as some South Koreans view it, into transforming the alliance in a way that does not suit national interests, South Korea would be better served by becoming self-reliant in its defence capabilities. This way, if the US gets involved in a conflict or crisis outside the Korean peninsula, South Korea would not be obliged to get involved. This shows a certain amount of ingratitude toward the US which has stood ready to defend South Korea in a second for the last 50-odd years. On the other hand, continuing the alliance in a format that suits nobody is not the answer either. The road to change may not look very bright, but it is not impossible. The end result might actually be better than the current situation.

For South Korea, change means gaining OPCON and significantly improving its C4I, a process which will take a great deal of time and money. Many nay-sayers to South Korea's plans for self-reliance emphasise that South Korea would be unable to maintain the same level of defence that US provides for them. That may be very true, but it is too simplistic in its analysis of the situation. The first problem is the tendency to measure what South Korea needs to deter/defend against, North Korea vis-a-vis what US has amassed to do that job. No country on this earth has the military capability of the US nor likely to get near it anytime soon. South Korea does not need to be as powerful and technologically advanced as the US in order to deter North Korea.

South Korea does, however, need to be more prepared for the job than it currently is. This will take a lot of money. South Korea spends over $21 billion annually on its military compared to North Korea's $5 billion odd. South Korea plans to boost its military budget to 3% of GDP, up from its current level of 2.6%. Concerns are that there is not in place any 'guarantee' that the increased military budget will be approved in the budget process on an annual basis over the long term. This concern, though it is worth voicing, lacks credibility. It is not reasonable to expect South Korea to earmark funding for the military budget by placing its approval exempt from the existing budgetary approval process. Furthermore, extensive reforms in the Korean budgeting process make the stability of military funding more likely than ever. Korea's move to adopt program budgeting, aims to ensure that all government priorities will be given adequate funding. Other reforms, such as the new medium-term expenditure framework, will be used identify and accommodate for long-term funding needs. This does not guarantee the military budget will be met as needed, but it does show that practical steps toward stable budgetary funding are being made.

With proper, stable funding there is no reason why South Korea can't upgrade its capabilities to what is needed over time. The key concern is whether they can be self-reliant in the crucial C4I area at the time that US hands over the controls. The experts predict that they will not be ready. This should not cause delays in the hand over, however, for one key reason: South Korea will never be completely ready to take the controls prior to handover. Moreover, handing over OPCON does not equate with complete US withdrawal of support for the defence of South Korea. Change should occur with a view that South Korea will learn and improve on the job. US should support the transition and the development of South Korea's capabilities with explicit backing in the early stages of hand over. This will have the benefit of helping Korea become self-reliant while also ensuring that North Korea has no doubts that South Korea is well defended during the transition.

The timing of these changes is of critical concern. The current plan, many say, is far too fast to allow South Korea to develop the initial capabilities it will need. The South Korean defence ministry prefers a 2015-20 vision but chances are that change could come as early as 2009. The difference of years is massive in terms of what Korea needs to achieve. Despite the strained relations between the US and Roh Administration, it would be surprising if the change did actually occur in 2009. There is an election coming up in South Korea before then. And like all plans regarding the US military in Korea and South Koreas defence capabilities everything is likely to get delayed.

Amidst all the negativity suggesting that South Korea is going down a terrible path that will leave it isolated and undefended, it is worth bearing in mind that Korea has already proved that it can do whatever it determines to do. South Korea has the ability to surprise us all.

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"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui