In South Korea, presidential election fever is heating up. Key candidates from the conservative People Power Party and the liberal Democratic Party of Korea are presenting their blueprints for the future of South Korea’s security and defence.
Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, vo-ws to swiftly realise the tra-nsition to operational control (OPCON) agreed to by South Korea and the United States, thereby consolidating the alliance relationsh-ip. At the meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink on 11 November, Lee stres-sed developing the alliance into a global partnership. Yoon Seok-youl, the conservative People Power Party’s presidential candidate, prefers to strengthen a strategic alliance with the United States and calls for South Korea’s active participation in efforts to build a global coalition.
Although the two camps diverge on the issue of North Korea and China, they support defence innovation and South Korea’s active participation internationally. Regardless of who takes power in 2022, the trend of increasing South Korea’s defence spending will continue.
South Korea’s pursuit of Defense Reform 2.0 aims to revolutionise its armed forces as an innovative force to meet future security threats. Defense Reform 2.0 — launched in the early days of President Moon Jae-in’s administration to improve the defence reform plan of the previous government — should encourage a more effective and capable South Korean military force. This is intertwined with the goal of exercising wartime OPCON, which has so far been delegated to American Combined Forces Command (CFC).
The OPCON transition requires significant force improvement so that South Korea can build core military capabilities to lead a combined defence force and bear primary responsibility for its own defence a-gainst North Korea. Tho-ugh talk of this transition h-as gone through ups and d-owns because of threats f-rom the North or rappr-ochement between the two Koreas, South Korea is dri-ven by a desire for autonomy within the US alliance system and a greater role internationally to match its economic and military heft.
So, how far has South Korea come in its pursuit of OPCON transition and defence reform?
The Moon administration is pushing for an early OPCON transition, but as the United States requires sufficient verification and certification, it is unclear when this will happen. The US position is that ‘any decision regarding OPCON transition will be an alliance decision and is based on bilaterally agreed conditions and not a timeline’. This includes ensuring that South Korea’s military becomes capable of leading the CFC and taking the initial response to a North Korean nuclear missile attack. Some experts in South Korea argue that these conditions are excessive. It is also ambiguous whether all 155 assigned mission essential tasks (M-ET) should be fulfilled or whether priority METs can be satisfied with the rest pa-ssed conditionally. To ensu-re that a future CFC led by a South Korean general can successfully accomplish its assigned mission, South Korea needs to push for the acquisition of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets and intensive training to secure its readiness.
An annual joint military training exercise was reduced due to COVID-19 and plans to verify the operational capability of the CFC were affected. The United States could not assess its full operational capability, which is phase two of the three-phase verification process required for the transition.
The OPCON transition will mark a turning point for South Korea’s defence system. The 2022–2026 Mid-Term Defense Plan announced by the Ministry of National Defense set a total budget of 315.2 trillion won (US$270 billion) for the next five years with an average annual rate of increase in spending of 5.8 per cent. There were plans to develop longer-range and more precise missiles by lifting the missile guidelines restrictions at the May 2021 US–South Korea summit. South Korea may also deploy a light aircraft carrier to boost its capability to respond to security threats in the region.
South Korea is also strengthening communication capabilities and looking to acquire military reconnaissance satellites, unmanned air vehicles and Baekdu surveillance aircraft. It is enhancing its precision-strike capability by securing long-range air-to-ground missiles and upgrading the Patriot and Cheolmae-II missiles.
The Korea Air and Missile Defense system is being strengthened by fielding ballistic missile early-warning radar systems.
Seeking advances in ground, sea and air operational capabilities is desirable but invites tit-for-tat actions between the two Koreas. North Korea criticises South Korea’s military build-up as unnecessarily destabilising regional security.
South Korea’s increasing military spending for defence modernisation can encourage the North to engage in balancing behaviours. Still, South Korea’s investment in improved defence capabilities and defence reform is likely to continue unabated.
When the time is right, South Korea will consider negotiations with North Korea.
How each side’s search for offsets may feed an arms race on the Korean peninsula and how they can best manage stability and maintain confidence in the sufficiency of their forces will be up for future discussion.