[Viewpoint] Take long view in military reform

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[Viewpoint] Take long view in military reform

In a closed meeting with the members of the National Assembly’s defense commission on April 30, the defense minister briefed the lawmakers on revisions in the plan known as “Defense Reform 2020.”

Under the law governing defense reform, this revision report is designed to reflect changes in the security climate and progress in defense reform every five years from 2006 to 2020. The report must thoroughly reflect the transformation in the defense environment as well as the expected long-term changes in the strategic environment in the future.

The changes in the defense environment can be summarized into several aspects.

First, due to the global financial crisis, the financial situation has worsened, and the budget for defense reform must necessarily be influenced by this.

Second, the U.S.-South Korean alliance has been reinforced. The alliance, which has suffered some damages over the past decade, is slowly being restored. In 2008, the two countries agreed to no more troop cuts for U.S. Forces Korea, maintaining the current level of 28,500 on the peninsula. That is a symbol of the restored alliance with the U.S.

Third, the threat of North Korea has increased. The forecast that North Korea’s threat will be reduced based on the improvement in inter-Korean relations was proven to be wrong in 2008 and 2009. As long as the current Kim Jong-il regime is maintained, the likelihood that the threat from the North will decrease is low.

Fourth, the planned U.S. hand-over of the wartime operational control to South Korea will proceed as scheduled, to be completed in 2012.

Taking into account such factors, the Defense Ministry curtailed the defense reform budget by 22 trillion won from the 2005 estimate. This was not because the 2005 plan was improperly laid out. The decision was rather to reflect worsening national finances.

According to the revision plan, the ministry also aims to make the best use possible of U.S. Forces Korea’s military capabilities as a part of Korea’s defense reform, separately from the planned handover of wartime operational control. By taking advantage of the U.S. military’s presence on the peninsula, it is possible for the government to adjust its priorities in creating alternate capabilities.

The revised plan also indicated that the number of Korean forces will be flexibly adjusted in order to cope with the North’s threats. In the face of the 1.17 million-strong North Korean military, the South will try to ease the burden on its army, following radical troop cuts.

And the ministry said it will make thorough preparations to take over wartime operational control in 2012, although some in our society show concerns about the change, urging the handover be reconsidered.

The revised defense reform plan has to be based on the assumption that the defense environment will continue to change in the same way it has over the past two and a half years during the next two and a half years, or maybe even five years.

However, we cannot create a blueprint for 2020 and 2030 with today’s defense environment. We need a longer view. If Korea seeks to be the world’s 10th-largest economy by 2020, then our blueprint for defense reform should be in line with that goal.

The gaps in military capabilities with neighboring nations must be decreased. Based on the national ambition to create a peaceful Korean Peninsula, the reform plan must include the idea of a changed military relationship between the two Koreas.

It is important for the defense reform plan to take into account changes over the past 30 months, but what’s more important is its insight for the next 30 years.

And the 2005 defense reform blueprint was a product of such thinking and insight.

Although we may need modifications and revisions, the framework of defense reform should be maintained. To complete the building called defense reform, the framework on the blueprint should be kept, while the method of construction should be upgraded to reflect advanced technologies and a pragmatic philosophy.

In the 2009 revised plan for reform, the ministry aims at making the best use of civilian assets and technologies. That is an improvement in construction methods.

It is inappropriate to criticize the 2005 reform plan as costly and wasteful, while praising the 2009 reform plan as economical. In principle, there is no mirac
le drug to build a strong, upgraded military without spending what is required.

*The writer is the head of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Baek Seung-joo

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