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National defense: Combined armies are a sticky issue

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Oct 21,2004
When remnants of East Germany’s military were absorbed into West Germany’s armed forces, one joke that made the rounds was that among the major changes, besides different paychecks, the former communist soldiers wouldn’t need to goose step Soviet-style when on parade. While the same joke might apply to an integrated armed force on an unified Korean Peninsula, experts say that the German model of a combined military force won’t be repeated here. “A sort of armed forces that is a federation of existing troops on both sides of the peninsula is probably a viable model,” said Cha Doo-heon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, a government think tank on defense issues. South Korea currently has a 694,000-man standing army, while North Korea has 1.17 million men under arms. With so massive a force extant, the question of how big a military the unified peninsula would require has confounded analysts. In 1991, a study by the National Defense Ministry predicted a standing army with an estimated strength of 700,000 men, but experts say coming up with a concrete figure is an obsolete concept. They instead offer a general direction of how the force should be shaped and the kind of character it would have. “For sure, the current size of both forces cannot be maintained,” Mr. Cha said. “But the numbers to be reduced will depend on the nature of the armed forces and the circumstances surrounding the peninsula. We are assuming that even after unification a U.S. military presence will be on the peninsula. So there are a lot of factors to consider.” Mr. Cha said that U.S. interest in maintaining influence in a strategic region, coupled with the self-interest of Korea to save some costs in its defense budget, means a U.S. military presence on the peninsula, even after unification, is not totally out of the question. “Of course, China would not like it. But if the presence is just symbolic, along the lines of indicating a military alliance, she would raise some noise but eventually accept it since the U.S. force can also be viewed as a stabilizer of the region,” added the researcher. With North Korea in possession of a huge, well-trained Special Forces capability, the armed forces of a unified Korea could get a boost that would make it a formidable force. “Special forces are a strategic asset to any country. They are ideal troops to dispatch for special missions abroad such as peacekeeping operations, and the mere presence of this type of force acts as a deterrent,” said Mr. Cha. He pointed out that the current force structure on the peninsula is based on the assumption of a war between the two Koreas. “With unification, the force structure will be changed to one that can deal with external threats coming from the outside the peninsula. That brings up also the need to boost our power projection capabilities,” pointed out Mr. Cha. With only one physical border to defend on the land and a focus on external threats, the reaction of China and Japan to a unified Korean military force poses interesting questions. Mr. Cha pointed out that most likely the military doctrine of China as well as Japan would change, as both nations would very closely monitor the size and combat capabilities of a unified Korea. Lim Kil-seob, also a researcher at the institute, said that armed services other than the army will inevitably increase their role in the new force structure. “So far, we have only thought about a conflict on the peninsula. No doubt, the need for power projection will give an increased role to branches other than the army,” said Mr. Lim. Besides cuts in units that will not be needed in a unified Korean military, one element of the North Korean army that will go, no matter what, is the commissar corps, the unit that ensures the allegiance of the armed forces to the regime. “Under a democratic system that has no place. It will be the first thing to go,” said Mr. Lim. A unified military also raises the question of what to do with the North’s inherited arsenal ― which likely includes arms restricted by the international community. This could include nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. “It certainly raises interesting questions,” Mr. Lim said. “Would a unified Korea opt to become a nuclear power despite the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty? I think not. To become a real nuclear power, a sufficient number of nuclear weapons are needed. Having just a couple isn’t good enough.” All in all, defense experts agreed that an army on a unified peninsula would most likely be a reduced armed force compared to the total combined number of the current two Koreas. A second feature, made possible by a lessened need to fight a land war on the peninsula, would be a more balanced branch structure, with less emphasis on the army. by Brian Lee


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