Features | Security | East Asia

South Korea’s Secret War

It may want to keep it quiet, but South Korea is developing a modern, more assertive military, says David Axe.

More than half a century since the end of the Korean War and the beginning of a long period of relative military isolation, South Korea is gradually, and quietly, playing a larger role in world security.

Despite strong US support, South Korea’s rise as a military power is complicated by domestic politics, and by a belligerent North Korea. To avoid provoking foreign and domestic opposition, Seoul has cleverly disguised its newest overseas military operation as a strictly peaceful affair.

Despite a technologically advanced military and a gross domestic product just shy of $1 trillion, making it the world’s 15th wealthiest country, the Republic of Korea has rarely deployed troops outside its borders. Granted, more than 300,000 South Koreans fought in the Vietnam War, and about 5,000 died. But it wasn’t until 1999, when Seoul sent 400 soldiers to boost a UN force trying to stabilize East Timor, that the country of 49 million participated in an overseas military campaign.

South Korean medics and engineers joined the US-led coalitions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. The Afghan mission was curtailed after the Taliban kidnapped a South Korean church group in Afghanistan and murdered 2 of its 23 members. The extremists released the surviving captives when Seoul promised to stick to a planned withdrawal by the end of 2007; the departing South Koreans left behind only a small civilian-run hospital at Bagram Air Field, outside Kabul. The Iraqi mission ended peacefully in 2008. That year, Seoul also sent a warship to patrol Somali waters for pirates.

But it was a second deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 that marked South Korea’s true debut as a military power. In response to US President Barak Obama’s call for a bigger international coalition in Afghanistan, Seoul last year pledged a Provincial Reconstruction Team and a powerful infantry force to accompany the team—a total of around 500 troops.

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South Korea also plans to send helicopters to support these ground troops. The aircraft, scheduled to arrive this year, will integrate into the US Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade based at Bagram, according to brigade commander Colonel Don Galli.

Engineering and reconstruction are core strengths of the Korean military. But the planned Afghan PRT represents a ‘face-saving vehicle’ for Seoul, providing political cover for the combat force, according to Scott Snyder, an analyst with the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation. While South Korea is committed to making a meaningful contribution to the Afghan war, sending fighting troops ‘is somewhat sensitive in the South Korea political context,’ Snyder told The Diplomat magazine. Hence the ‘reconstruction’ rubric.

All the same, Snyder said there’s been less domestic discomfort with the Afghan deployment than many observers expected. An alliance of small opposition parties promised to fight the deployment, but is unlikely to reverse Seoul’s decision. ‘The South Korean public is getting more comfortable’ with sending troops abroad, Snyder said. Just not so comfortable that they don’t demand a soft sell.

A ‘Global Korea’

That shift has its roots in the US-led international coalition that defended South Korea five decades ago and helped rebuild the country after the war. ‘The new administration [in Seoul] is emphasizing this theme of a “global Korea,” which increasingly hits on the idea that South Korea had been a recipient of international contributions and now it’s time for South Korea to pay that back,’ Snyder said.

But Seoul’s appetite for a broader security role is complicated by ongoing tensions with North Korea. In May last year, Pyongyang officially withdrew from the truce that ended the Korean War, amid the North’s escalating efforts to develop nuclear weapons. North and South Korea have sparred over their disputed sea border. In November, North and South Korean naval vessels opened fire on each other. A North Korean sailor died in that exchange.

On March 26, a South Korean patrol boat, the Cheonan, exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea. Forty-six sailors died. Officials have blamed the sinking on an ‘external’ explosion—perhaps from a mine or a torpedo—rather than some internal malfunction. That means Cheonan might have been attacked. Seoul has been careful not to directly accuse Pyongyang of orchestrating an attack, but Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan did say the UN Security Council might become involved if emerging evidence implicates North Korea.

Seoul’s guarded response to the Cheonan sinking underscores President Lee Myung-Bak’s intention to avoid direct confrontation with Pyongyang. South Korea seeks to expand outward as a military power, rather than continuing to focus its security apparatuses solely on its neighbour. After all, overseas military operations can be cloaked in peaceful rhetoric, while confrontations with North Korea frequently and obviously result in bloodshed.

The South Korean contingent in Afghanistan illustrates Seoul’s veiled approach to a wider security role. The Korean troops, with their helicopters and armoured vehicles, form a ‘heavy’ reconstruction team that is, in fact, virtually indistinguishable from a US Army combat task force. And in fact, both the Korean PRT and a typical US task force conduct many of the same kinds of operations. After all, the Afghanistan war is a counter-insurgency campaign, where efforts to win Afghans’ allegiance drive military planning. In Afghanistan, the only important distinction between the South Koreans and the Americans is rhetorical.

Seoul is not the first government to attempt this sleight of hand in the interest of deploying forces to Afghanistan. The Dutch government deployed a similar heavy PRT to the southern part of the country soon after the US-led invasion in 2001. The Hague sold the deployment as a strictly peaceful, reconstruction exercise—never mind the jet fighters, artillery and helicopter gunships that accompanied the engineers. The rhetoric of peace was the only way to avoid a popular backlash against the operation.

The Taliban poked holes in The Hague’s cover story when hundreds of armed extremists attacked Dutch positions in Uruzgan Province in June 2007. It was one of the largest pitched battles of the year for NATO forces. Several Dutch soldiers died, while more than a hundred Afghan civilians were killed when the Dutch fired artillery and dropped bombs on heavily populated areas. In the aftermath of the fighting, elements in the Dutch government advocated cancelling the Afghanistan deployment; it took more than two years of political manoeuvring, but in February The Hague announced it would evacuate its troops this year.

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As long as Seoul pursues a similar strategy to disguise its growing war role, it runs the risk of a political conflagration similar to The Hague’s, if and when South Korean forces come under attack in Afghanistan.

US Cover

South Korea is hardly striking out on its own as a burgeoning power. At every step, Seoul’s closest ally is providing cover. The United States has offered support at every level—even at Bagram, where US Air Force security personnel protect the South Korean hospital. ‘They do a good job for us,’ says nurse Chon Jung Ae, referring to the US guards.

Seoul’s military expansion has a strong foundation in the continued presence of US forces in the South. The strong US military contingent in South Korea ensures the country can direct resources towards other conflicts, without jeopardizing its security vis-a-vis the North.

More than 25,000 US troops are permanently based in the Republic of Korea to help defend against any North Korean attack. Washington considers the defence of South Korea so important that the Pentagon has barred US troops in the country from ever deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. ‘Our number-one priority in Korea is to be prepared to deter and defend,’ US Army Gen. Skip Sharp, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told The Diplomat.

Still, Sharp said the US-South Korean alliance is ‘definitely blossoming into something larger’ than mere territorial defence. ‘I really do think we are looking at what kind of training capability we need on the [Republic of Korea] side, not only against the North Korean threat, but future threats as well.’

This year’s Afghanistan deployment is a big step towards a South Korean military that routinely participates in a wider range of missions abroad. Major weapons purchases are consistent with this trend, and might point to an even greater world security role for Seoul in coming years. In 2007, South Korea commissioned the first of three small aircraft carriers. If and when Seoul buys naval fighters to fly from them, the 14,000-ton vessels will be among the most powerful in Asia—and capable of projecting South Korea’s influence all over the world.

By then, no doubt, the rhetorical veil in place in Afghanistan will be both unnecessary, and impossible to maintain.