[Viewpoint] Addressing a changing North threat

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[Viewpoint] Addressing a changing North threat

The government’s scheduled completion of the revision of the defense reform road map falls at the end of this month. In early 2007, a law was enacted to govern defense reform and for the past two years there have been efforts to restructure the military and upgrade capabilities to accommodate modern warfare.

The plan is also aimed at nurturing an elite, advanced military by reforming defense management. The plan was based on the presumption that inter-Korean relations will improve based on the reconciliation policy pushed forward by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.

Since then, however, the security environment has seen a series of variables including the North’s increased military threats and the changes in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Due to the global economic crisis, the defense reform plan also faced the challenge of raising financial resources.

North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il’s health problems were reported during the summer of last year and the North also increasingly staged provocations, indicating the heightened instability of the North Korean regime.

The North’s asymmetric threats have grown increasingly serious. The North fired a rocket in April and more missile firing followed. Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test last month, and possibilities of more nuclear tests and the firing of inter-continental ballistic missiles are being discussed.

Kim is trying to control and unite the country by heightening the North Koreans’ pride through nuclear and missile tests. Kim also appears to be using the escalated tensions to hand over the regime to his 26-year-old third son, Jong-un. North Korea has declared it will build a strong nation by 2012, the 100th anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. For the North, nuclear arms and missiles are not easy to give up.

The South’s defense reform plan should focus on stable countermeasures to the North’s asymmetrical threat. In order to counter the North’s nuclear and missile programs, it is crucial for the South to upgrade its surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles and advanced radar systems that can give early warning for ballistic missiles and the Airborne Warning and Control System.

To effectively and promptly counter provocation from the North, the South needs to upgrade its key capabilities, including the Patriot Advanced Capability 3, to intercept the North’s ballistic missiles.

The South’s defense reform plan should also pay attention to the North’s reinforcement of its conventional capabilities. The North has recently upgraded its capability for special warfare, creating a light infantry division for the army corps defending the border. The move is worth paying attention to. With the North’s troops and reserve forces, the conventional capabilities could be a serious threat.

Even in the era of intelligence and advanced weaponry, conventional forces are still an important factor. The United States had believed that the number of troops was not a matter of concern in modern-day warfare, but in the war in Iraq this judgment was proven to be wrong. The North’s military appears be studying U.S. campaigns abroad to devise its strategy.

This situation must be taken into account when revising the South’s defense reform plan, and Seoul must reassess troop size and capability to counter the North’s threats; planned troop cuts and readjustment of units should be linked to the timetable for introducing upgraded advanced arms.

The troop cuts, linked to a realignment of Army units, is a key part of defense reform. But it should be set forth as a long-term goal. As long as the North’s threats increase, the South must maintain an adequate number of forces.

The defense reform plan is a long-term project, and consistency is a must. And yet, revision and modification are also necessary to accommodate the changed security environment. The changes are to maintain the stability of the South Korean military’s readiness.

The most critical role of the national defense is defending South Korea’s safety from military threats, and the government must never forget it.

*The writer is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by No Hoon
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