On July 27, South Korea’s Defense Minister Song Young-moo briefed President Moon Jae-in on “Defense Reform 2.0,” an expansive initiative to restructure and modernize Korea’s defense. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) has released seven proposals on specific agendas, most recently announcing plans to renovate military housing and facilities on August 16. The government is highly invested in military reform, but the array of modernization plans and restructuring raises questions about its financial feasibility and efficacy in improving Korea’s defense posture.
In South Korea, defense policy is often controversial, as the case of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system shows. THAAD was seen as an environmental and regional threat, and its deployment faced fierce opposition, including local protests and economic retaliation from China. However, THAAD was also considered effective in deterring North Korea’s missile threats and so was eventually deployed last September. More generally, South Korean defense policy is formed against a complex political background, with constant North Korean threats, memory of an oppressive 30-year military regime, and mandatory enlistment issues. These contribute to compelling arguments made by both conservative and progressive parties.
The Moon administration prioritizes defense reform in its agenda. Over the past year, the administration’s policies increased civilian participation and introduced structural reform: raising soldier wages by 88 percent, appointing civilian directors in the MND, increasing women’s participation in defense, and reducing non-combatant positions. Political opponents argue these policies soften the South Korean defense posture. Advocates believe they will solve current and emerging problems in defense.
There are myriad reasons for emphasis on defense reform. First, enlistees will inevitably decrease, as South Korea faces a demographic cliff. With reduced staff, enhancing combatant abilities is crucial to maintaining the defense posture. The administration also closely watches the military’s political influence. Memories of military oppression make many politicians, especially participants in pro-democratic protests under the past military regime, wary of the military’s capabilities. A recent scandal involving the Defense Security Command’s plans to impose martial law recalled these fears. Human rights issues inside the military, including poor payment, suicides, and abuse of power, are also urgent matters. Finally, the military is judged as excessively exclusive, driving the government to increase civilian intervention and participation in defense.
Defense Reform 2.0 incorporates these drivers as it aims to foster the capabilities required to respond to a quickly changing Northeast Asian security environment. It consists of three core pillars: an omnidirectional response to security threats, implementation of the latest technology, and developing a military culture to tackle human rights issues. Slated for implementation over five years, the plan provides sweeping instructions for reform across the South Korean defense system. Under the catchphrase “Realizing a Strong Force & Responsible Defense,” the July 27 MND press release says “Defense Reform 2.0 is a calling of the era to create foundations for a new ROK military.” The military will undertake major restructuring of its command and affiliated units, first decreasing the number of generals from 436 to 360 and soldiers from 618,000 to 500,000. Civilian positions in defense will also increase and wartime operational control will be retrieved from the United States.
Alongside restructuring efforts, reform will focus on modernizing defense capabilities. Main targets will include establishing a Korean-made missile defense system with satellite surveillance and precision strike capabilities, a cyber threat response team, a combat drone system, a new reconnaissance aviation group, and improvement of naval strategic maneuvering. On August 8 and 9, the MND provided timelines for modernization with specific target years to revolutionize the military supply system, implement Information & Communication Technology, consolidate the reserve forces, and strengthen cyber defense capabilities. The MND intends to implement the latest technology for defense modernization, such as big-data systems, 3D printing, drones, AI, and IoT. Plans also include an updated combat-focused reserve force and a more responsive cyber defense operation.
While the roadmap is out, Defense Reform 2.0 still faces obstacles. The reform will require a massive defense budget increase. The MND suggests that an annual 7.5 percent average increase of the defense budget for five years is required to meet objectives, a total budget of $240 billion. However, with the government’s commitment to income-led growth and active budget support in redistribution policies, it is difficult to see this budget requirement being met. There is also the problem of gaining public approval. Expanding the defense budget could seem redundant at a time when relations with North Korea are warmer.
Critics also point out that the substantial downsizing of military personnel will result in a weaker military force. Considering the looming North Korean threat, downsizing the military could be a premature policy. The July 27 MND announcement confirmed a curtailing of the mandatory period of service from 21 months to 18. Opponents of this policy claim the government should increase the period, considering the demographic cliff. Whether the modernization process will be swift enough to replace the lost staff is also doubtful. Defense modernization leaves South Korea’s defense industry swamped in work. Whether the defense industry, which is also designated for restructuring due to recurring corruption, can digest the workload will be critical in determining success.
Defense Reform 2.0 encourages a transition into a more effective and capable South Korean military force, essential in the current security surroundings. However, a realistic overview of budget procurement with project prioritization and deadline consideration must accompany its initial steps forward. Acquiring a $240 billion defense budget will be difficult especially with an expansion of fiscal spending in the economy for job creation. With an insufficient budget, the MND should prioritize projects depending on their relevance to a strong defense posture. The defense reform should also be responsive to regional changes. Denuclearization talks with North Korea are currently gridlocked, but the North Korean threat could develop in either direction.
Defense Reform 2.0 will keep the MND busy for the near future. However, despite consensus on the necessity of defense reform, opinions vary on its direction and coverage. For the consistency and success of comprehensive reform, Moon should not depend on a bundle of modernization projects, but assess its practicability and determine what comes first in the ambitious plan.
Sungyoung Jang is a research intern in the Stimson Center’s East Asia Program and is an Asan Academy Young Fellow.