The bitter South Korean presidential election reached its dramatic conclusion. Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol won a surprisingly narrow victory in a race that focused on domestic issues. However, the greatest divergence between the two candidates appeared to be on security issues.
Yoon, of the conservative People Power Party, emphasized deterring the North, strengthening South Korea’s military, and more tightly embracing the United States. Among the candidates’ sharpest disagreements were over Yoon’s support for launching a preemptive strike to prevent a North Korean missile launch and adding THAAD batteries for missile defense. The latter reflected Yoon’s willingness to criticize China; he also urged improving bilateral relations with Japan.
Yet there may be one area of broad agreement between the two parties—important after such a close election and with the National Assembly remaining in the soon-to-be opposition Democratic Party’s hands for two more years. Both parties support a more robust South Korean military.
On the Republic of Korea’s Armed Forces Day last October President Moon Jae-in expressed “trust and pride” in his nation’s military and “strong security posture.” At the end of the year he discussed even broader defense aspirations, reportedly opining that the ROK’s “defense capabilities are needed not only for deterrence against North Korea, but also for the autonomy of our country stuck between great powers.” Thus, “We should be equipped with defense capabilities befitting such a geopolitical location.”
More important, while talking of peace, his government prepared for war. For instance, last September Seoul announced that it was expanding its missile program. The Defense Ministry explained: “We will develop stronger, longer-range and more precise missiles so as to exercise deterrence and achieve security and peace on the Korean Peninsula.” These improvements became possible after the U.S. ended restrictions on South Korean missile production. Said the ministry: “Following the termination of the [missile] guidelines, we will exercise deterrence against potential threats and improve strike capabilities against main targets.”
Equally significant, Seoul tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile in September. Moon watched the launch and insisted that it was “not a response to North Korea’s provocations.” However, he noted “the reinforcement of our missile capabilities can be a clear deterrent to North Korea’s provocations.” By matching North Korea’s SLBM program and providing an essentially invulnerable deterrent, the ROK is entering an exclusive club of just eight nations that currently possess this capability.
Moreover, SLBMs could prove valuable in confronting not just the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but other states, most obviously China. Explained the Blue House: “The possession of an SLBM has a significant meaning for the purpose of securing deterrence capabilities responding to omnidirectional threats and will play a big role in the establishment of national self-defense and peace on the Korean Peninsula in the future.”
After the North’s seven missile tests in January, Defense Minister Suh Wook visited the Army’s Central Missile Command. He said the unit was “central” in responding to the North and “gives confidence to our people through overwhelming strategic victory at times of emergency,” The political nature of the visit was clear, but it highlighted the Moon administration’s increased military effort.
The Seoul government’s current blueprint would hike military outlays by a quarter by 2026. The latest budget envisions improved defenses against missiles, long-range artillery, and submarines, enhanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities, an aircraft carrier for vertical-takeoff aircraft, and much more. Roughly a third of military outlays would go to “force enhancement,” to maintain the South’s qualitative military edge over the DPRK. Although both Tokyo and Seoul have enjoyed a cheap ride at Washington’s expense, the South faces notably greater threats. Without an ocean moat against an armed and hostile North Korea, the South must take its defense responsibilities more seriously than has Japan.
Observed the U.S. War College’s Lami Kim: “Since Moon, a member of South Korea’s Democratic Party, took office in 2017, the country’s defense budget has increased by an average of 7.4 percent annually. Under the two previous conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the defense budget only rose by between 4 and 6 percent annually. By 2022, South Korea is expected to spend more on defense than Japan—whose gross domestic product is three times as large—and become the fifth- or sixth-biggest-spender on defense in the world.”
Yoon might accelerate that pace. After the election he said he would “establish a strong military capacity to deter any provocation completely.” Nevertheless, Japan threatens to make defense outlays into a competitive race with its new defense plans. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s latest manifesto pledged to double outlays to two percent of GDP. Although no one expects Tokyo to reach that level soon, having America’s closest Asian allies vie to spend the most on the military would be a welcome change.
Most broadly, higher South Korean military outlays would respond to broad security concerns. Last year’s Defense White Paper declared:
“Our recent security situation is extremely complex and grave, both internally and externally. Neighboring countries of the Korean Peninsula continue to reinforce their cutting-edge military capabilities, pushing their own priorities while expanding their military domains not only in the sea and air but also to space and cyber. In addition, transnational and nonmilitary threats such as COVID-19, disasters and terrorism are emerging as challenges to national security. In particular, with the spread of COVID-19 and the strategic competition between the United States and China, the fluidity and uncertainty of the regional security structure are increasing.”
Greater military strength also would reduce Seoul’s dependence on Washington, an embarrassment for a nationalistic people who effectively surrender important military decisions to the U.S. Moreover, negotiating from a position of military strength would give Moon’s successor more confidence in dealing with the DPRK. Moon termed the South’s new capabilities a “clear deterrent to North Korea’s provocations.” Yoon promised to take a tougher stand against the North. A stronger ROK also would require fewer concessions from the North to secure peace. And North Korea would have more reason to yield if Seoul enhances its defense capabilities.
Pyongyang officials unintentionally make this point when they complain vociferously about South Korean military developments. For instance, the North claims that weapons developed by the ROK, including fighters and satellites, are intended for a preventive attack. The Kim regime even criticized South Korean weapons development as an “unpardonable act of perfidy.” The North understandably prefers a weaker South.
The ROK also has been seeking to confront unique threats posed by its nuclear-armed adversary. Ian Bowers and Henrik Stålhane Hiim of the Royal Danish Defence College and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, respectively, observed: “To deter North Korea—and limit damage if a conflict breaks out—South Korea is operationalizing an independent conventional counterforce strategy, or offensive and defensive measures designed to destroy or deplete the nuclear forces of an adversary. To bolster deterrence, South Korea is also threatening countervalue strikes, seeking to hold the North Korean leadership at risk.”
Equally significant, perhaps, the ROK’s goal is to create military capabilities separate from America’s. Bowers and Hiim reported that though Seoul “is developing this strategy within the framework of its alliance with the United States, the ultimate goal is a fully independent operational capability.” They see this stance “as both a short- and long-term hedge against U.S. abandonment.” Yoon would be wise to continue this strategy. Although American subsidies reduce Seoul’s need to invest in the military, they increase Seoul’s vulnerability to swings in U.S. policy. And the endless stream of rising deficits facing Washington make future military cuts likely.
Improved South Korea capabilities will become more necessary if nuclear negotiations with North Korea continue to drag on without positive result. Unless an agreement is reached to at least cap the DPRK’s program, the North could soon end up as a mid-level nuclear power. The Rand Corporation and Asan Institute estimated “that, by 2027, North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons. The ROK and the United States are not prepared, and do not plan to be prepared, to deal with the coercive and warfighting leverage that these weapons would give North Korea.”
Despite Yoon’s commitment to an even closer bilateral relationship, it is difficult to see how the alliance as presently organized could then survive. Although the North would face devastating retaliation if it initiated a first strike, it could threaten to use its nuclear weapons in any conventional conflict that threatened it with defeat and regime destruction. In 1950 China intervened to rescue the North after America’s entry into the war. That wouldn’t happen in another conflict, but Kim could threaten to use nukes in a similar circumstance unless Washington retreated from North Korean territory. No American president could responsibly risk U.S. cities under such circumstances. This conundrum necessarily would call the alliance into question.
South Koreans no less than Americans recognize the challenge, which was exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s reckless chest-thumping about “fire and fury” mixed with proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from the peninsula. Assessed Bowers and Hiim: “Under these conditions, South Korean military and political elites are unwilling to rely passively on extended deterrence by the United States. Instead, they are following a long-worn path of making incremental internal adjustments to their country’s military capabilities to strengthen its relative position in the alliance.”
Although with the right conventional weapons the South could wreak great harm on the North, Seoul still would feel vulnerable facing a nuclear North alone. Perhaps in fear of this future, the ROK already is considering its nuclear options. Last September Yoon advocated that the US reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons and negotiate a nuclear sharing agreement. So did conservative contenders Hong Joon-pyo and Yoo Song-min. Four years ago liberal Assemblyman Lee Jong-geol, a member of the Defense Committee, advocated choosing “tactical nuclear as the last negotiating card,” which he acknowledged “has been taboo until now.”
In April Yoon’s transition advisers visited Washington and advocated the return of “strategic assets,” such as bombers and submarines, to the peninsula. Opined Assemblyman Park Jin: “Deploying the strategic assets is an important element of reinforcing the extended deterrence, and the issue naturally came up during the discussions.”
Moreover, preparations are being laid, conveniently if perhaps inadvertently, for an ROK nuclear weapon. Bowers and Hiim contended that current policy “will bolster South Korea’s nuclear latency. Many of the capabilities South Korea is acquiring or considering—particularly advanced ballistic and cruise missiles—will shorten the time frame for development of a credible nuclear deterrent. Moreover, these conventional capabilities may function as a stopgap deterrent to protect South Korea during the dangerous window between abandonment and the attainment of deliverable nuclear weapons.”
In fact, there is notable political support for an independent nuclear deterrent. Popular backing for a nuclear capability has been increasing; it hit 69 percent, the highest over the last decade, in a September poll conducted by the Asan Institute. Hong forthrightly stated that he would consider constructing nuclear weapons, arguing that “Nukes can only be countered with nukes.” He added that “the balance of terror via nuclear weapons was achieved in Europe. The inter-Korean front is more dangerous place than Europe.”
He is not the first substantial political figure to take that position. In 2013 Chung Mong-joon suggested going nuclear, delivering a speech in Washington proposing to match the North while offering to halt nuclear activities if North Korea did so as well. Honorary chairman of the Asan Institute, he was a long-time member of the National Assembly, chairman of the ruling conservative party, and a 2002 presidential candidate. Chung declared that “The lesson of the cold war … is that against nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can hold the peace.’’
Yoon has yet to declare his position, and the issue remains a decided minority view among South Korea’s governing elite. However, changing circumstances could increase support. If there is reason to doubt Washington’s commitment to the ROK’s defense, Seoul would have to take over responsibility for its own defense, including against the possibility of a North Korean nuclear strike. In which case future Armed Forces Days might take on a very different character.
Yoon’s election likely presages a faster South Korean military build-up. However, Moon’s aggressive military program provides a solid basis for Yoon’s plan to increase South Korean capabilities. Although time remains to cap and even reverse the North Korean nuclear program, if the North advances as fast as some analysts fear the Korean peninsula may enter a brave new world sooner than most anyone expects. Then today’s challenges will look simple compared to those facing future policymakers.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.