Peace process paradox: Why Moon is bolstering S. Korea's armaments
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After observing the test launch of an SLBM at the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) on Wednesday, Moon said it had shown "adequate deterrence to respond to North Korean provocations at any time."
On July 26 of that year, leader Kim Jong-un shared "advice," calling on South Korea to "come back to the proper stand as in April [with the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom] and September [with another inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang] last year."
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The curious timing of South and North Korea test-launching ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) within hours of each other on Wednesday is raising fears that the two sides might be entering an unforeseen arms race.
Inter-Korean relations are potentially being threatened by a dilemma as the same Moon Jae-in administration that vigorously pursued a “Korean Peninsula peace process” over the past four years makes efforts to ensure autonomous defense as well.
After observing the test launch of an SLBM at the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) on Wednesday, Moon said it had shown “adequate deterrence to respond to North Korean provocations at any time.”
“I hope we continue doing our best to ensure strong defense capabilities, including ongoing reinforcements of our missile firepower,” he also said.
As Moon indicated, the government announced Thursday that it has succeeded in its development of a high-powered ballistic missile called the Hyunmoo-4, which included a “historic increase in warhead weight,” and testing of aircraft separation for a long-range air-to-surface missile to be carried on next-generation KF-21 fighter aircraft.
That’s not all.
The intermediate-term national defense plan for 2022–2026 announced by the Ministry of National Defense on Sept. 2 also included the complete introduction of F-35 stealth fighters, continued development of the 6,000-ton next-generation KDDX-class destroyer, continued acquisition of medium-sized submarines in the 3,000-ton class, force integration of surface-to-surface and naval ship-to-surface missiles with greater destructive power, and the acquisition of a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier
A closer look at them shows plans for huge increases in military spending. If the plan goes ahead as is, South Korea’s national defense budget is poised to exceed 60 trillion won (US$51 billion) by 2024, and 70 trillion won (US$59.5 billion) two years later in 2026.
Precedent shows that the rate of increase in defense spending under progressive administrations that emphasize inter-Korean dialogue tends to dwarf that of conservative administrations.
One key reason for this seeming irony is the issue of the return of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the US — a cherished hope of progressive administrations emphasizing autonomous defense.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration originally reached an agreement with the US to return OPCON by April 2012. It went on to pursue massive increases in military spending to ensure an independent deterrent against North Korea.
Roh was succeeded by the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. The Lee administration postponed the OPCON transfer schedule to December 2015, citing security fears in the wake of the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan corvette in 2010, among other factors. Later, the conservative leaders would backpedal further, agreeing to a transfer based on the meeting of certain conditions rather than according to a set schedule.
The baton was then passed to the Moon administration. To meet the “rigorous conditions” agreed upon by South Korea and the US, that administration has continued to carry out joint military exercises with the US — a matter that has the North particularly on edge — while pursuing large increases in military spending.
The results have been disastrous for inter-Korean relations.
After the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi collapsed in February 2019, Pyongyang began issuing a flurry of basic demands from Seoul and Washington, including the withdrawal of what it calls hostile policies.
On July 26 of that year, leader Kim Jong-un shared “advice,” calling on South Korea to “come back to the proper stand as in April [with the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom] and September [with another inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang] last year.”
The Moon administration’s response to this was to go ahead with joint military exercises the following August and announce plans for a large-scale increase in military spending, with “300 trillion won [US$255 billion] to be invested in national defense over the five years beginning in 2020.”
North Korea countered with its own push back against the South at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in early January 2021, where it announced plans to develop “super-sized nuclear warheads,” tactical nuclear weapons, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter
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