A Hawkish Dove? President Moon Jae-in and South Korea’s Army Buildup

Has South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, a powerful proponent of a peaceable engagement coverage towards North Korea, was a hawk? On Sept. 7, South Korea efficiently examined a submarine-launched ballistic missile, changing into solely the eighth nation (and the primary one with out nuclear weapons) to own that sort of functionality. It was the most recent step in South Korea’s ongoing navy buildup.

Since Moon, a member of South Korea’s Democratic Occasion, took workplace in 2017, the nation’s protection funds has elevated by a mean of seven.4 % yearly. Beneath the 2 earlier conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the protection funds solely rose by between 4 and 6 % yearly. By 2022, South Korea is anticipated to spend extra on protection than Japan — whose gross home product is 3 times as massive — and turn into the fifth- or sixth-largest spender on protection on the planet. As well as, regardless of Pyongyang’s vehement protests, South Korea has resumed joint navy workout routines with the USA.




Moon’s navy buildup stands in stark distinction to his dovish coverage towards North Korea. Having served as an in depth aide to President Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 till 2008, throughout the peak of the “sunshine period,” Moon restored the engagement coverage towards North Korea shortly after taking workplace. He has spent vital political capital on this effort, which culminated in three inter-Korean summits in 2018 and a navy settlement throughout the identical yr. Via this course of, the 2 Koreas agreed to de-escalate navy tensions, finish hostile acts, and construct a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula. Whereas the navy pact isn’t an arms management treaty, South Korea’s latest navy buildup, which incorporates advancing missile capabilities focusing on North Korea’s strategic belongings and aimed toward “decapitating” the North Korean management, arguably violates the spirit of the inter-Korean agreements. North Korean state media has criticized Seoul’s arms improvement as an “unpardonable act of perfidy” that threatens to undermine peace and stability.

What explains Moon’s seemingly contradictory approaches to nationwide safety? The reply lies in his objective for South Korea to take again wartime operational management (OPCON) from the USA. To attain that ambition, South Korea wants to cut back its navy dependence on the USA and improve its personal capabilities to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Seen on this gentle, the Moon administration’s navy buildup begins to make sense. 

The Historical past of Wartime Operational Management

For the previous seven many years, South Korea has lacked full management over its navy. Shortly after North Korea’s invasion in June 1950, South Korea transferred OPCON to the United Nations Command, which was led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the time. After the struggle, the USA and South Korea codified the switch, not solely as a method to defend South Korea but in addition as a method for the USA to rein in potential South Korean aggression towards its northern neighbor. When the U.S.-South Korean Mixed Forces Command was established in 1978, OPCON was transferred from a U.N. commander to an American commander.

After the top of the Chilly Struggle, in 1994 the USA transferred peacetime OPCON again to South Korea. However, if a struggle erupts, an American commander of Mixed Forces Command would assume OPCON and lead the battle, whereas a South Korean normal would function deputy commander. In 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal, pushed for the switch of wartime OPCON, which President George Bush agreed to finish by April 2012. If wartime OPCON was transferred to South Korea, Mixed Forces Command would subsequently be led by a South Korean commander, who would have the authority to make sure strategic selections on the battlefield.

Roh’s conservative successors postponed the plan as a consequence of their issues concerning the influence that OPCON switch might need on the U.S. safety assure, in addition to North Korea’s rising nuclear threats. Within the wake of North Korea’s second nuclear check in 2009, President Lee Myung-bak pushed again the deliberate switch date till 2015. In 2014, Presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama agreed to delay the switch indefinitely till “important ROK and Alliance navy capabilities are secured and the safety atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula and within the area is conducive to a steady OPCON transition.” The U.S. and South Korean governments established a conditions-based transition plan beneath which the 2 sides frequently evaluate the safety scenario: They haven’t but concluded that South Korea has met the required circumstances.

Inside South Korea, conservatives and liberals have fiercely debated the problem of wartime OPCON. Whereas transferring it wouldn’t set off the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea nor the termination of the American safety assure, South Korean conservatives view America’s persevering with maintain on wartime OPCON as helpful insurance coverage towards U.S. abandonment. In contrast, South Korean liberals view OPCON switch as essential to reaching full nationwide sovereignty and management over the nation’s self-defense, although the South Korean president can primarily veto American OPCON of Mixed Forces Command, anyway. That’s as a result of the U.S. commander can solely assume wartime OPCON with the approval of each the American and South Korean presidents. Additional, OPCON switch wouldn’t restore South Korea’s “full sovereignty” within the liberal politicians’ sense of the time period. Even after OPCON switch, the commander of the alliance’s warfighting command would stay topic to the authority of each Washington and Seoul. The misperceptions and misunderstandings about what the switch of wartime OPCON implies — amongst each South Korean conservatives and liberals — have turned this navy difficulty right into a political controversy.

Moon’s Army Buildup

On the marketing campaign path in April 2017, Moon made it clear that his authorities would “take again wartime OPCON early” to discourage North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and would “take cost of our protection by ourselves.” Aiming to finish the switch earlier than his tenure ends in Might 2022, Moon has initiated a navy buildup. The rationale is clearly said in South Korea’s 2018 Protection White Paper: South Korea’s elevated protection spending is aimed to “deter and reply to nuclear and missile threats as the highest precedence and construct key navy capabilities for wartime operational management (OPCON) transition to determine the ROK Armed Forces-led mixed protection system.”

To satisfy the circumstances required for OPCON switch, South Korea must improve its means to guide the mixed command and counter North Korea’s threats. South Korea has to have the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to find and monitor North Korea’s nuclear and missile applications so as to detect any impending North Korean assault towards the South. That is at the moment probably the most important gaps in South Korea’s navy capabilities, and an space during which the nation nonetheless depends closely on the USA. Beneath the conditions-based plan for OPCON switch, South Korea can also be required to have high-explosive shells and ballistic missiles that might enable it to launch preemptive assaults towards North Korea’s nuclear and missile services. Moreover, South Korea would wish to have efficient missile protection techniques in case deterrence fails.

To satisfy these circumstances, Seoul is enhancing its navy capabilities. South Korea has lately acquired new surveillance belongings, together with World Hawk unmanned plane with refined imaging and digital alerts sensors that can enhance the nation’s situational consciousness and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Seoul can also be creating homegrown hypersonic and precision-guided missiles, high-yield warheads, and satellite tv for pc navigation techniques. Moreover, South Korea is investing about $2.5 billion within the analysis and improvement of a sophisticated missile protection system modelled after Israel’s Iron Dome, with the objective of deploying it by 2035. Moon’s administration can also be pursuing nuclear-powered submarines to counter North Korea’s submarines and that would give Seoul the flexibility to develop nuclear weapons in brief order. Lastly, the Moon administration resumed joint U.S.-South Korean navy workout routines in 2019 with the objective of verifying the South Korean navy’s readiness to take again OPCON (though this plan has been annoyed because the workout routines have been scaled again as a consequence of COVID-19).

The Moon administration is making an attempt to maintain its navy buildup as low key as doable, which speaks to its actual intention. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris’ April 2020 tweet about South Korea’s procurement of delicate navy belongings, resembling World Hawks and F-35A next-generation fighter jets, generated an argument as a result of Seoul had been reluctant to make the procurement public. As a South Korean navy supply cited by Yonhap stated, “Our fundamental stance is that we don’t publicize such issues for safety causes.” Though the belongings South Korea is buying and creating are geared towards defending the nation from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, if the first objective was deterrence, demonstrating quite than hiding these new capabilities can be the extra logical technique. In any case, deterrence works solely when the enemy is aware of that you’ve got the desire and the potential to inflict unacceptable hurt on them. The Moon administration’s want to downplay new capabilities means that the goal of Seoul’s navy buildup isn’t primarily deterrence, however satisfying Moon’s ambition to fulfill the circumstances for OPCON switch.

Some argue that President Trump’s alliance coverage, which brought about a concern of abandonment amongst U.S. allies, explains Moon’s navy buildup. Nevertheless, in actuality, a buildup aimed toward facilitating switch of wartime OPCON each predated and outlasted the Trump presidency. In pursuit of that objective, President Roh Moo-hyun enhanced navy capabilities and elevated the protection funds by over 8 % yearly throughout his tenure from 2003 to 2008. As well as, Moon’s navy buildup has not slowed down regardless of President Joe Biden’s efforts to restore U.S.-South Korean relations.

The Way forward for the Army Buildup

South Korea’s navy buildup will probably proceed after Moon’s tenure ends in Might 2022. With the conservative Folks Energy Occasion nonetheless in turmoil 4 years after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the Democratic Occasion’s most promising candidate, Lee Jae-myung, is main within the polls for the March 2022 presidential election. Like Moon, Lee has been a powerful proponent of the switch of wartime OPCON, in addition to nationwide self-defense and sovereignty extra typically. Just lately, he stated that regardless of Pyongyang’s protests, U.S.-South Korean joint navy workout routines are associated to OPCON switch and may subsequently be resumed.

With merely eight months remaining in Moon’s time period of workplace, not solely has engagement with North Korea floundered, however the switch of OPCON seems more and more unlikely to occur earlier than the top of his administration. Each targets have been admittedly troublesome. Nevertheless, Moon’s simultaneous pursuit of two contradictory targets — wartime OPCON switch and peaceable engagement with the North — could have hindered the possibility of reaching both. Moon’s navy buildup, one situation for OPCON switch, hampers the creation of a peaceable atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula, one other situation for such switch. If his prime precedence was taking again wartime OPCON, Moon ought to have constructed up South Korea’s navy capabilities to fulfill the required circumstances earlier than pursuing peaceable engagement with North Korea. Alternatively, if partaking North Korea was the highest precedence, Moon ought to have delayed a navy buildup. When states set incompatible targets, it’s crucial that in addition they have coverage priorities. In any other case, they run the danger of reaching nothing in any respect.



Lami Kim is an assistant professor within the division of nationwide safety and technique on the U.S. Military Struggle Faculty and a 2020–2021 U.S.-Korea NextGen Scholar beneath the sponsorship of the Korea Basis. The views expressed are these of the writer and don’t essentially mirror the official coverage or place of the Division of Protection or the U.S. authorities. 

Picture: U.S. Air Power (Photograph by Employees Sgt. Alex Fox Echols III)

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