Prevailing on the home frontAt the legislative inspection of government offices on Nov. 5, a lawmaker asked which side would win if South and North Korea go to war one on one. The head of intelligence headquarters at the Ministry of Defense said the South would be at a disadvantage on its own, meaning without the assistance of the United States. Two days later, Defense Minister Kim Gwan-jin said that if we go to war, North Korea would ultimately fall, but South Korea’s military strength is about 80 percent of North Korea’s.
According to them, our security would collapse without the Korea-U.S. alliance and U.S. military here. But it is not convincing, as North Korea spends 1 trillion won ($943.48 billion) on its military when South Korea is 38 times richer that the North and allocates 34 trillion won, 10 percent of the national budget, to defense. In other words, the military augmentation projects we have pursued since the 1970s to modernize the military and attain independent defense have failed miserably.
Is it really true? Experts and researchers have a completely different view from the Korean military’s self-evaluation. In 1985, a U.S.-based RAND Corporation analysis said that South Korea’s defense spending had exceeded that of North Korea since 1976, and its aggregated defense expenses surpassed the North in 1983. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research center with authority in military-strength evaluation, has a similar view. In the 21st century, the DPRK army continues to boast the world’s fourth-largest force, but due to an aging weapons system and a lack of training, morale and strategic readiness, it’s not comparable to modern South Korean forces in terms of conventional strength. According to the institute, that is why North Korea is increasing its dependency on asymmetrical strength such as nuclear weapons and special warfare. According to Global Firepower, which ranks military strength, the South Korean military is eighth in the world while North Korea ranks 29th.
The U.S. military’s view is not much different. At a Senate hearing in February 2011, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency James Clapper said North Korea’s conventional military strength has seriously weakened over the past 10 to 15 years. In July, USFK Commander-Appointee Curtis Scaparrotti told the Senate that ROK Forces possess overwhelming capacity to drive away the North’s conventional attacks and defend the nation on their own. Since the 1990s, Korean scholars mostly supported the view of South Korea’s military dominance. Interestingly, even a report prepared by the National Intelligence Services for the Blue House in 2009 during the Lee Myung-bak administration estimated that South Korean forces were 10 percent superior to North Korean forces, and ROK forces combined with the USFK forces would be overwhelmingly dominant.
It is understandable that the military organization would try to justify what it sees as a necessary defense budget by overestimating both North Korea’s military threat and South Korea’s shortcomings. But they can only win public trust if they are sincere. In fact, the theory of inferior military capacity is based on an outdated evaluation system involving the number of troops and weapons. Ironically, if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, air and sea battles are led by U.S. forces, while the ROK forces are in charge of ground warfare. So without U.S forces, we can hardly deter, defend or attack effectively.
While advocating ROK forces’ relative inferiority may help secure the defense budget, it ultimately would cause tremendous damage. If the military underestimates our own strength repeatedly, we encourage Pyongyang to misjudge the situation and make a military provocation. It is undesirable that, in the meantime, North Korea enjoys psychological dominance and South Koreans feel anxious and defeated. Moreover, the habitual inferiority argument may greatly undermine citizens’ trust in the military.
ROK forces need to be more objective and transparent in policy, strategy and evaluation of strength. Instead of trying to secure a budget with unreliable calculation, it must catch up with the trend of the times and adapt to the changed situation. Also, the air force, navy and army should beef up capabilities for joint operations. The National Assembly and civil society also need to reinforce the professional capacity to take charge of the defense budget and policy. Only awakened citizens can have a rational military.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in