[Viewpoint] Why Korea’s defense reforms fail

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[Viewpoint] Why Korea’s defense reforms fail

Notwithstanding the strategic rationale to implement comprehensive defense reforms, Korea’s traditional conventional doctrine, force posture and deployment has entrenched its armed forces institutionally, operationally and culturally. The protracted over-dependence and reliance on the U.S. forces coupled with existing inter-service rivalries and their varying doctrinal and technological preferences has precluded military innovation in Korea.

For nearly six decades, Korea’s traditional security template focused on sustaining the status quo - maintaining deterrence and robust defense posture in order to prevent another major outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. Its three mutually-reinforcing strategic pillars: defensive deterrence; U.S.-Korea alliance; and forward active defense have defined the baseline of Korea’s national security conceptions as well as corresponding force structure and operational conduct of its armed forces.

However, since the late 1990s, Korea’s security dilemmas have become more “fluid” and multifaceted with broad implications in both strategic and operational domains. There are at least five key factors that have redefined Korea’s security equation over the last decade: (1) a widening North threat spectrum from the North; (2) shifts in U.S. defense transformation; (3) China’s military modernization and power projection; (4) South Korea’s aim for self-reliant defense, and (5) subsequent changes in the U.S.-Korea alliance.

With the changing security dynamics coupled with the shifts in the U.S.-Korea alliance, South Korea’s defense planners have been searching for a new strategic paradigm with relevant operational concepts, which would allow greater flexibility, adaptability and autonomy under conditions of strategic uncertainty. Simultaneously, South Korea has been pursuing a comprehensive force modernization in order to respond to the widening spectrum of threats, mitigate technological and interoperability gaps with the U.S. forces, and eventually attain self-reliant defense posture.

Underscoring South Korea’s defense transformation vision has been the “Defense Reform Plan 2020” (DRP 2020). First introduced in 2005, and subsequently revised in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the DRP 2020 envisioned transforming South Korea’s military into a smaller, but increasingly networked, balanced and digitized standing force with independent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, real-time integrated command and control systems. However, with its ambitious scope, proposed timeline and escalating costs, the DRP 2020 became unrealistic.

In 2010, two crises have further reshaped the direction of the DRP 2020 and much of South Korea’s defense planning: the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea and North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. The strategic and operational shortfalls in responding to North Korea’s increasingly asymmetric forms of warfare eventually prompted South Korea to request the U.S. for a postponement of the planned transfer of the war-time operational control (OPCON) to Seoul until 2015.

Moreover, in 2011 South Korea’s Ministry of Defense announced a revised force modernization plan - “Defense Reform 307,” addressing medium-to-long term defense requirements to counter potential North Korean asymmetric provocations, infiltrations, and attacks similar to the sinking of the Cheonan and artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. The 307 plan follows newly conceptualized “proactive deterrence” strategy, aimed to deter future North Korean provocations, partly by avoiding serious damage from potential provocations and by having effective retaliatory capabilities for such provocations.

As with previous plans, however, the implementation of the 307 Plan is conditioned by several impediments anchored in South Korea’s traditional security paradigm, which have precluded a defense transformation and inhibited military innovation.

First, the evolving and diverse nature of inter-Korean relations over the past decade has polarized South Korea’s political arena, with persisting debates on the magnitude and character of North Korean threats; terms and conditions of potential Korean unification; changes in U.S. strategy and security commitment to South Korea; and concomitant long-term strategic requirements and defense resource allocation. The increasing fragmentation of South Korea’s political arena has led to an erosion of strategic consensus, which resulted in contrasting calibrations in South Korea’s defense needs.

Second, after nearly six decades of largely static, defensive posture focused on defending the DMZ and reliance on direct U.S. support, the Korean military has been constrained by its own institutional rigidity, intellectual conservatism and path dependence. The Korean forces have been entrenched in inter-service rivalries for resources, stimulated by the inherent asymmetric force structure dominated by the Korean Army, which has arguably resisted change. Indeed, the composition, force structure and deployment of the Korean military remains relatively unchanged - dominated by conventional ground forces.

Third, the confluence of political, economic and strategic constraints precluding the implementation of broader defense reforms can be seen at the operational level, where Korean forces still face a range of technical and inter-operability problems in conducting full-spectrum joint military operations with the U.S.

Ultimately, South Korea’s defense establishment has been caught between political and historical strategic legacies, emerging complex threats, interoperability requirements and linkages with the U.S.-Korea alliance that have precluded significant defense transformation. In order to implement the various defense reforms, South Korea must facilitate greater strategic and operational adaptability in its defense planning.

*The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

by Michael Raska
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