South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to change the ideology, character, and structure of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea (AFROK). This will not be straightforward. The Korean Peninsula is technically still at war, and AFROK defend South Korea against military threats from the North. But popular opinion seeks the democratization of AFROK, in line with recent social and political trends.
The Defense Reform 2.0 project was announced on July 27, 2018; it comprises 16 categories and 42 action items. Among the major goals: to establish a new military operations paradigm for today’s society by mitigating the harsh stance toward North Korea while improving flexibility and command and control; to downsize AFROK for more efficient high-tech platforms and in response to demographic changes; to reinforce civilian control of the military; to reduce the duration of mandatory military service; to return wartime Operational Control (OPCON) from the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command to the ROK as soon as possible; and to recapitalize military budgets for future threats, focusing on reconnaissance satellites, missile interceptors and ballistic missiles.
AFROK reform will be a necessary part of the current peace initiative, but the operational and tactical ramifications are troubling: the military imperative must not be neglected.
Although Moon served in the ROK’s special forces, his cabinet is dominated by pro-democracy activists of the 1980s and 1990s, whose understanding of national defense is colored by ideology. Defense Reform 2.0 seems to have had little input from experts, and perhaps has been overly influenced by a populist experience of mandatory military service.
South Korea is experiencing significant economic challenges, and Moon is under pressure to create more and better jobs, especially for young people, which has encouraged him to emphasize inter-Korean economic cooperation and to minimize the prospects of renewed military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. That North Korea has refrained from overtly hostile actions, in the recent atmosphere of détente, is welcome, and it is appropriate for military strategy and defense policy to reflect this. But peace has not suddenly broken out on the Korean Peninsula, and AFROK must not drop their guard.
That said, South Korea is no longer a military dictatorship, but a rapidly maturing democracy, and it is time for the country’s military to be transparently managed by the civilian authorities. Of course, AFROK will continue to advise on defense policy and military strategy, but they must relinquish their role as the primary decision-makers.
For the same reason, wartime OPCON, which is currently vested in a U.S. Army four-star general, should return soon to AFROK control. Besides helping to offset any loss of military esteem resulting from the transition to civilian oversight, this will also address North Korea’s complaint that the regular U.S.-ROK exercises are preparation for a U.S. invasion.
Moreover, AFROK should no longer be politicized under the pretext of national security. Moon has publicly rebuked the Defense Security Command (DSC) for its involvement in domestic affairs during the “candlelit protests” against former President Park Geun-hye, and is using this scandal as leverage to build support for Defense Reform 2.0.
Crucially, the essential recapitalization of AFROK should take advantage of advanced military technologies made possible by the “fourth industrial revolution.” Previously, whenever budgets were increased to deal with specific threats, such as the investment in anti-submarine warfare capabilities in response to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010, AFROK have proved inefficient and vulnerable to fraud. Closer civilian scrutiny can only improve the situation, and will also allow diplomatic and political solutions to be considered alongside and integrated with military ones.
Some Sticking Points
Although the DSC scandal has mobilized clear public support for implementing robust civilian control of AFROK, and for a thorough reform of their ideology, character, and structure, conservative public opinion still sees AFROK as an anti-communist bastion and all liberal policies as dangerous mistakes. In this context, the implementation of Defense Reform 2.0 will be difficult, not least because it has been formulated mostly by civilians, rather than by experts in military affairs.
First, the significance of North Korean denuclearization cannot be overlooked. Following the Singapore summit on June 12 between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Trump, the most essential question is whether and how the agreement signed can be turned into substantive actions. Moon is relying upon phased and simultaneous actions by North Korea and by the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Defense Reform 2.0 is thus predicated upon North Korean denuclearization. The proposed defense budget for 2019-2023 is 270.7 trillion won (equivalent to $240 billion), which assumes no substantial shift in the military standoff off between the North and South Korean militaries. Moon has proposed an 8.2 percent increase for 2019 to meet future threats, the largest since 2008, but while this recapitalization is welcome, some now argue that China and Japan represent a greater threat than North Korea.
Next, the condition of the U.S.-ROK alliance will also be critical for Defense Reform 2.0. The transfer of wartime OPCON is an important aspect of this, but even in peacetime the role of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (ROK-U.S. CFC) has become controversial, as witnessed by the shock refusal of the general commanding USFK, dual-hatted as ROK-U.S. CFC commander, to permit border crossings by railway officials to investigate re-establishing the connections between North and South. This would provide better communications, transportation and logistics services between the two Koreas, which could also be expanded to other Eurasian countries, including China and Russia.
South Korean foreign and security policy has to cope not just with North Korea, but also with China and other regional players, and in consequence Moon’s government, which is currently pursuing North-South negotiations, has been criticized as showing signs of anti-Americanism. The peace initiative on the Korean Peninsula is clearly encountering some sensitive issues, provoking unfriendly or even hostile reactions from its ally, the United States. For example, the timing of the anticipated End of War Declaration will be crucial, and satisfying all interested parties will be difficult.
Establishing an arms-control regime between the two Koreas will be an especially tricky problem. Military confrontations can be mitigated or prevented by applying principles of relative comparison and impartiality developed during the late 20th century by Washington and London, but this task is greatly complicated by disparities between GDPs, population sizes, and military capacities. Moon’s government is keen for AFROK to pull back from their frontline positions, to ease tensions near the Demilitarized Zone and the Northern Limit Line, but until North Korea demonstrates its sincerity this is inadvisable: preliminary confidence-building measures are prerequisites for building trust between the two Koreas.
Defense Reform 2.0 seeks to reconnect AFROK to today’s society, and to make the South Korean military establishment transparently accountable to the nation’s democratically elected representatives; this will entail a significant shift in the ideology, character and structure of AFROK. Moon is primarily concerned with political and social reform, and these are timely and appropriate, but the military viewpoint must also be taken into account if the situation on the Korean Peninsula is to remain stable. There is considerable scope for misunderstandings to arise between President Moon’s goals and AFROK perceptions of their responsibilities.
Sukjoon Yoon is a retired Republic of Korea Navy Captain, and a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs (KIMA).