In the face of the intensifying threat from North Korea, the option that should be foremost in the strategic calculus of South Koreans is enhancing their country’s capacity for deterrence, relying, above all, on their own military forces and only secondarily on those of the United States. Without making a strong commitment of its own, Seoul is in a weak position to seek a greater commitment from its ally. Plans have been proposed, especially since 2010, for boosting defense spending significantly beyond recent levels. Reviewing what they entail and assessing the transition from the Lee Myung-bak administration to the Park Geun-hye one as well as the recent ideas for strengthening deterrence, this article concentrates on the details of weapons acquisitions and force enhancement in today’s increasingly dangerous environment.
The majority of Asian states do not have readily identifiable immediate threats or ambitions to develop the military capabilities of a major power. They follow a hedging strategy: force structures are developed and maintained as insurance against deterioration of the strategic environment, and, more generally, to try to match the acquisition of advanced capabilities elsewhere in the region. On the Korean Peninsula, however, one of the most significant drivers of military enhancement is to deter North Korean provocations, notably after a series of armed provocations by the DPRK in 2010. The defense posture initiated by the Lee Myung-bak government and further developed by the Park Geun-hye government brought a more selective but systematic response to local provocations and asymmetrical threats by increasing active deterrence capabilities. This article focuses on the option of intensifying this strategy. It identifies major concerns of the ROK’s defense modernization, reviews some concepts salient to the debate, and pays particular attention to the budget debate. The stress is on making force enhancement a higher priority in Seoul’s security and foreign policy, even if many are overly optimistic about diplomatic alternatives or overly distracted by budgetary proposals to achieve economic or social objectives.
Establishing Proactive Deterrence Capabilities
A new doctrine of proactive deterrence in 2011 allowed the ROK armed forces to make prompt, focused, and proportional retaliation against North Korea’s armed attacks. Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated, “If the enemy attacks South Korean people and territory, the ROK military will definitely use force to punish the enemy to make sure they will not even dare to think about it again.”1 The enemy should be punished thoroughly until the origin of a provocation, its supporting forces, and the commanding headquarters are eliminated.2 The ministry made an effort to reinforce the Northwest Islands (NWI) defense posture. The NWI Defense Command was activated on June 15, 2011 headed by the Marine Corps commandant supplemented by joint staff including army, air force and navy officers in order to increase the firepower. The ministry strengthened the Marine Corps combat power with an increase of 1,125, cancelling the original plan of reducing the forces by 3,800. By doing so, it was able to establish a battalion headquarters at Yeonpyong Islands (YP-do) and elevate a company to the battalion level at Daechong and Sochong islands, increasing survivability and maximizing combat efficiency. The NWI Defense Command began to exercise against enemy fire provocations or a surprise assault. The ministry built accommodations for US marines to use in joint field training at the NWI. The KMEP (Korea Marines Exercise Program) has been established, and now the two sides have increased readiness based on the ROK-US combined counter local provocation plan. More tanks, K-9 self-propelled howitzers, 130mm MRLs, and AH-IS Cobra helicopters have been positioned. The ministry also deployed the Israeli spike missile system, which can directly hit the enemy’s artillery base.3
Kim Jong-un did not sit idly by, watching Seoul’s increase in readiness and strengthened alliance capabilities. On August 2012, he visited Jangje and Moo islands, from where North Korea fired shells at YP–do in November 2010, killing four civilians and marines. He visited those frontline Islands in March 2013 and September 2013 too.4 According to the KNCA, Kim instructed his forces on how to attack the South Korean forces, including the priority of targeting, while checking three times their readiness by visiting the frontline posts just seven kilometers from South Korea’s command post. Recently, North Korea began to fortify Gal-do, an island even closer at 4.5 kilometers from Korea’s command post.5 The NWI are a likely location of future conflict given their location and history. North Korea has long disputed where the maritime border was drawn in the wake of the Korean War by the United States, and therefore, it can hardly accept the Northern Limit Line, suggesting it should be farther to the South. A North Korean exercise fired artillery into the western sea near YP-do on May 13 and 14, 2015.6
The South Korean military is expected to deploy an advanced multiple launch rocket system to some of the Army’s frontline units from the latter part of 2015.7 This is to deter North Korea’s continued artillery and rocket threats, as it has recently deployed new 300 mm MRLs capable of reaching Pyongtaik, the home base of US Forces Korea after 2018, and Geryongdae, the headquarters of Korea’s armed forces.8 The new domestically made MRLS called “Chunmoo” will bolster South Korea’s artillery counterstrike capabilities as it has a range of up to 80 kilometers—double the currently deployed “Guryong” rocket system. When delivered for operational deployment by the end of 2015, it will greatly enhance the ROK’s counter-fire readiness posture and is expected to be deployed to the NWI sometime next year, to cope with artillery threats. The North currently has 170 mm-caliber self-propelled howitzers and 240 mm-caliber multiple rocket launchers with ranges of 54 to 65 kilometers. Its 300 mm MRLs are believed to have a range of 200 kilometers. Seoul has been focused on defending against ballistic missile threats, and there is rising concern about Pyongyang’s rocket capabilities. It will take at least five years to negate North Korea’s superiority of firepower.
Redesigning the military under the concept of a “multi-functioning, highly-efficient advanced armed forces”—a long-time goal—is focused on three areas: 1) restructuring the military; 2) implementing defense reform in accordance with the strategic concept of “proactive deterrence”; and 3) developing a force structure that can detect various threats and improve the ROK military’s response capabilities.
Focusing on Key Concerns
Despite Park’s efforts to improve inter-Korean relations, North Korea has never shown any willingness to give up its nuclear ambitions and refuses to become a normal state.9 Kim Jong-un expressed an interest in resuming dialogue with South Korea in his New Year’s address;10 however, his attitude totally changed in the following weeks after the United States flatly turned down his offer to stop the annual military exercise in return for halting nuclear tests temporarily.11 He now openly mentions a nuclear attack on targets in the continental United States and ordered his military leaders to complete the war preparations by October 2015.12 Provocations continued in May, even as South Korea decided to send 15 tons of fertilizer for the first time in five years and humanitarian assistance through UN agencies.13 On May 8, Pyongyang test-fired a missile from a newly developed 2,000-ton submarine at a shipyard in the eastern coastal city of Shinpo, a crucial early stage in developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Given the need to miniaturize a warhead and master the missile’s atmospheric reentry, it will take four to five years to fully achieve the SLBM capability.14 This is a serious security challenge since it would allow Pyongyang to have a second strike capability and negate the advantages of defense modernization efforts made by the Park government. South Korea and the United States need to do more to prepare for rash action by a young leader who is unpredictable and bold enough to challenge Obama’s strategic patience and Park’s sincere efforts to achieve trust building and denuclearization through dialogue.
Many security planners doubt that a 3.5 percent increase in the defense budget is sufficient to carry out defense modernization as planned. One editorial argued that the Park administration is failing to recognize the urgency arising from the shifting security environment of Northeast Asia.15 To reorganize frontline corps-level units into central players, an air support operations center will be attached to each corps to allow its commanders to easily mobilize aerial firepower during ground combat operations. The plan increases capabilities by providing high-tech military equipment, but it reduces the army corps to 6 from 8 and the number of divisions to 31 from 42, while downsizing the mechanized infantry brigades to 16 from 23. This would cut troop numbers by more than 110,000 by 2022: the army from 498,000 to 387,000, while the navy, air force, and marines will remain unchanged at 41,000, 65,000, and 29,000, respectively. To maintain combat capabilities, the ministry plans to increase the proportion of senior-level officers including NCOs to 42.5 percent from 29.5 percent, but observers note, these increases are unachievable without making more funds available.16
The ROK military wants to modernize before realignment and downsizing take place; however, the schedule was delayed due to defense budget shortfalls. Economic recovery has been the priority, and security advisors at the Blue House cannot get sufficient support from the president to increase the defense budget. One editorial warned that Park’s defense plan misses how to strengthen the joint operational war fighting capability.17 Proposals to unify the command structure failed to win consensus in the National Assembly. The Park government has not explained how it is going to handle the issue. Downsizing the number of generals was the key issue, but the Park government has never mentioned this sensitive matter. Recently, Han Min-koo, minister of national defense, announced that his ministry would supplement reform efforts in a framework of “creative defense,” a new slogan for 2015,18 but opposition remains severe.
Li Soo-yong, North Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, expressed the intention to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 3, 2015.19 What he asserted is certainly beyond the scope of deterrence and has been regarded as a game changer for strategists in both Seoul and Washington. The attack against the US ambassador shows that North Korea can easily endanger key alliance targets.20Kim Jong-un firmly believes that holding South Korea nuclear hostage would not only serve its interest but also attract the attention of the Obama administration and have a deterrent effect against US preemptive strikes against the regime and its nuclear facilities.
Recognizing the Significance of the “Kill-Chain” and “KAMD” Concepts
In May 2011, cabinet members promised to support enhancing the missile capability in the defense budget for the next fiscal year. Building the country’s own missile system was the main focus of the Defense Reform Basic Plan 2012-2030. After the shelling of Yeonpyong-do, the ministry had to focus more on improving counter artillery and missile capabilities as part of facilitating defense reform. It was necessary to extend the ballistic missile range to 800-1,000 kilometers.21 Minister Kim argued that the most suitable deterrence is to show that the ROK is strong and able to hit any target within North Korea.22 North Korea has been developing a road-mobile, inter-continental ballistic missile system much more difficult to detect and, solid fueled, so that it can be fired more quickly. The defense reform plan calls for closing the missile gap by reinforcing South Korea’s Missile Command. Building Kill-Chain, a detection-strike system designed to preemptively attack mobile missile launchers when a launch sequence is detected by an advanced reconnaissance system, has become the priority.23 Seoul estimates that North Korea currently has more than 1,000 missiles and 100 mobile rocket launchers. As Kill-Chain cannot destroy all missiles before they are fired, it will target the remaining missiles and combat aircraft at a range of 10 to 30 kilometers.24
Minister Han Min-koo on July 20, 2014 stated that ROK forces would firmly and immediately respond to a North Korean provocation by striking its origin, its supporting forces, and the commanding headquarters responsible. His statement echoed what his predecessor had said. Han emphasized the strategic value of “Kill-Chain” in his interview, explaining that acquiring the system is crucial to preemption when the North enters the stage of using nuclear weapons, asserting that KAMD (Korea’s own air and missile defense system) would be completed by the early 2020s. After North Korea’s third nuclear test, Seoul and Washington responded firmly with a “tailored deterrence strategy” that entails the use of all available military assets to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea if there are signs of an imminent nuclear attack. This counters political and military advantages North Korea may try to gain from its nuclear and missile capabilities.25 Building KAMD and Kill-Chain to preempt Pyongyang’s long-range missile and artillery attacks will be impossible without an adequate budget.26
KAMD and Kill-Chain have been introduced for developing South Korea’s own capacity to preempt North Korean missiles should a nuclear attack be imminent; however, skeptics doubt that as many as 100 mobile launchers can be preempted.27 They argue that building KAMD is too expensive without assurances. Moreover, concerns have been raised that Pyongyang’s recent efforts to develop SLBM capability and build a Satellite Control Center nearby Kim Jong-un’s residence in Pyongyang may neutralize the Kill-Chain and KAMD strike systems.
Both Kill-Chain and KAMD are costly initiatives to boost South Korea’s capacity to respond to a deepening nuclear threat. Matters of coordinating with the United States or even Japan are addressed in the following article. What is required from South Koreans is recognition of the increasing gravity of the threat they face and determination to make missile defense and a system capable of a preemptive attack the highest priorities for protecting their country.
Relying solely on the United States is not advisable. As Park Geun-hye has always emphasized, South Korea should seek to maintain good relations with all of the regional powers—China, the Russian Federation, and Japan—, while planning ahead for contingencies that may arise from deepened budget cuts and even possible US reordering of strategic priorities. This makes it more important to fulfill the new Defense Reform Basic Plan 2014-2030 thoroughly and convince the uniformed officers that the reform agenda is back on track. The plan was regarded as a strategic improvement over its predecessor to reinforce South Korea’s own capacity to respond to North Korea’s provocations. However, it does not account for a possible reduction in US defense spending or change in its strategic priorities. The budget has never exceeded the percentage of GNI set by prior governments since 1996.
Force enhancement has progressed since 2010, and acquisition priorities have focused on North Korea’s asymmetric threats. Preparations for all-out war have been reduced. Yet, much more needs to be done, e.g., to respond to North Korea’s submarine provocations and SLBM capability, more radars, detection equipment, P3Cs, advanced submarines, and Aegis-class destroyers are needed. The ROK is anticipating that the United States will proceed as spelled out in the Strategic Alliance 2015. The Park government also needs to take timely steps to overcome its own vulnerabilities, such as modifying its doctrine, equipment, and training. Elimination or reduction of its vulnerabilities to asymmetric threats may involve changes in philosophy, tactics, and training, and possibly even modifications to the concepts of operations. All entail substantial costs.
The former defense minister asked for an annual increase of 7.2 percent in the defense budget for the five years of 2014 to 2018.28 His successor’s requests for increases are even higher during the period 2016 to 2020.29 Force buildup will need to be increased annually by 10.6 percent. A defense budget of approximately 232 trillion won will be required for deterring North Korea. Considering the large reduction in personnel ahead, required resources must be secured. The costs of not dealing with the threats are likely to be much higher. The costs of remedies can be significantly lowered by early action and increased coordination with strategic partners.
On April 14-15, 2015 in Washington, Park and Obama administration defense officials agreed to establish the ROK-US Deterrence Strategy Committee (DSC) to integrate the response to North Korean nuclear, other WMD, and ballistic missile threats. The DSC is a combination of the former Extended Deterrence Policy Committee (EDPC) and Counter Missile Capability Committee (CMCC), and it seeks to actualize 4D operations—detect, defend, disrupt, and destroy. To deter and respond effectively to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, interoperability of the two forces needs to be enhanced and upgraded.
Pyongyang will return to the negotiating table only when its nuclear option is no longer viable. The Park government has done its utmost to find incentives through various diplomatic channels; however, it also needs to demonstrate that North Korea’s nuclear capability can be deterred by employing non-nuclear strategic weapons.31 The good news is that confidence in the joint counter capability is growing in the face of Pyongyang’s continuing missile firings and rhetoric of nuclear preemption. Paradoxically, the Park Geun-hye government’s trust building efforts can only be effective when Pyongyang’s strategic superiority over Seoul begins to lose its momentum. Negotiating from strength has long been recognized as ideal. This is especially so with Pyongyang. There is no alternative but to put strengthening South Korea’s deterrence capabilities first on the list of strategic options.
3. Zachary Keck, “South Korea to Purchase Israeli Missiles” The Diplomat, January 7, 2014.
7. The Korea Herald, March 25, 2015, 4.
9. Chosun Ilbo, February 3, 2015, A30.
10. Kookmin Ilbo, January 5, 2015 http://news.kmib.co.kr/article/print.asp?arcid=0922904212.
11. Kyunghyang Shinmun, February 12, 2015, 6.
12. Dong-A Ilbo, February 13, 2015, A5.
14.The Korea Herald, May 12, 2015, p. 1.
15.Dong-A Ilbo, March 7, 2014, p. A31.
16.The Korea Herald, March 7, 2014, p. 1.
17.Chosun-Ilbo, March 7, 2014, p. A31.
18.Segye Ilbo, January 29, 2015, 6.
19.Dong-A Ilbo, March 4, 2015, A06.
20.Joong-Ang Ilbo, March 6, 2015, 7.
21.The Korea Herald, March 22, 2012, 1
22.Dong-A Ilbo, March 22, 2012, A2.
23.Chosun Ilbo,April 22, 2013, A30.
24.Dong-A Ilbo,October 2, 2014, A3.
25.Karen Montague “A Review of South Korean Missile Defense Program,” Marshall Policy Outlook, March 2014, 1-10.
26.Dong-A Ilbo,October 2, 2014, A3.
27.Chosun Ilbo,February 26, 2015, A3.
28.Ministry of National Defense, Defense Reform Basic Plan 2014-2030(Seoul: MND, 2014).
30.Kim Chul-hwan, “DSC established for integrated response to North Korea’s Nuclear threats,” The Korea Defense Daily, April, 29, 2015.
31.Chosun Ilbo,February 26, 2015, A30.