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     Oct 16, 2012

South Korea's path towards militarization
By Yong Kwon

Since pre-modern times, Northeast Asia has perpetually been heavily armed and fortified. With the Cold War powers continuing to bolster military assets and North Korea regularly upsetting stability in the region, it seems unlikely that the demilitarization will occur anytime soon. If anything, the recent clashes over maritime boundaries in the South and East China Seas show the primacy of military might in the continent's statecraft. Into this fray, an additional power has been making its way towards the headlines: South Korea.

Historically, Seoul has been a relative bystander in the region's military buildup, heavily reliant on the US military and more focused on economic growth than war games. Due to its experience in the Korean War and its overwhelming security


concerns, it is not that South Korea has been uninterested in obtaining greater offensive capabilities. On the contrary, the state had repeatedly tried to obtain nuclear weapons and industrialization in the 1970s was in part to promote domestic weapons manufacturing capabilities (See "'Mr K' shows Korea's Cold War lingers," Asia Times Online, July 12, 2011 ).

However, other priorities had existed. During its formative years in the 1950s and 60s, alongside turmoil that obstructed political consensus and economic development, Seoul was more concerned about fostering the national economy than focusing on overhauling its armed forces. Recognizing the prohibitive expense of militarization, the crux of the country's foreign policy in the 1970s remained relying on the trans-Pacific alliance with Washington and undercutting Pyongyang by building a relationship with Moscow and Beijing.

For what Seoul needed to achieve during the Cold War, its policies were largely successful. President Park Chung-hee went as far as to dispatch Korean forces to Vietnam to retain a sizeable contingent of US forces in South Korea and through rapprochement and Nordpolitik, eventually both China and the Soviet Union established ties with Seoul. In addition, the country was stable and prosperous enough that North Korea was deterred from pursuing an armed reunification of the peninsula. The economic prowess of the country even brought much sought after international recognition, which further aided Seoul's legitimacy over Pyongyang.

Although relative to other countries, South Korea did spend an enormous portion of its GDP on purchasing arms and maintaining its military forces, it certainly did not go the lengths of its northern neighbor or other countries with comparable security threats.

Yet with South Korea's burgeoning role in international trade and the new political regional power dynamic after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Seoul's military needs were vastly expanded. The issue with Somali pirates presents a good example where Korea's new bluewater fleet is directly preserving Korean economic interests in the Indian Ocean. In addition, signs of military weakness along the maritime border with North Korea, exemplified by the surprise attack on the corvette Cheonan and the failure to effectively respond to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, pushed the government to double down on South Korea's national defense.

Considering the tense geopolitical circumstances that surround the region, Seoul's militarization plans are of extreme importance. Negotiations between Seoul and Washington on increasing the range of South Korea's missiles from 300 kilometers (km) to 800 km have just finished. From the Korean perspective, the increase is justified by that fact that all the surrounding powers have ballistic missiles with range that exceed 10,000 km; Alongside China's Dongfeng and Russia's Topol missiles, even Japan has independent long-range ballistic missile capabilities with the MU-5 rockets. Most importantly, North Korea's attempt at producing its own ballistic missile, the still unsuccessful Taepodong-2, drives South Korea's case for an effective ballistic weapons program.

However, Washington has always been wary of giving more leeway to Seoul. And for good reason. Much like the South Korean navy which is obviously being equipped to handle military action far away from the waters around the peninsula, the missiles have an added range that serve no purpose but to further intensify the arms race in Northeast Asia. [1] If anything, it is Seoul's way of inching closer towards being able to have ballistic nuclear missiles.

Indeed, the discussion in the public forum has already included not just the limited range of South Korean missiles, but also their payload. Framing Seoul's defense needs to just the peninsula, South Korea's military analysts and officials emphasized that a payload of 500 kg was enough to develop bunker busters that would be capable of attacking North Korea's entrenched shore battery positions along its southwestern shores.

Although the expansion of the missile range was agreed upon with the understanding between the two countries that the payload will be limited to 500 kg, South Korean officials will certainly breach the subject of increasing the payload capacity of its missiles in the future. Meanwhile, Seoul has also acquired permission to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with a maximum payload of 2.5 tons.

Complementing this move, several prominent political figures have called for the revision of the US-South Korea Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (see treaty here ) which is nearing its 2014 expiration. While many domestic voices support a revision on the economic basis that South Korea needs uranium enrichment capabilities to become more energy independent, others in the public and the National Assembly are openly supportive of developing nuclear weapons. [2]

While there is little chance that Washington will make changes to the agreement that would in any way allow Seoul to even think about developing nuclear weapons, Seoul's policies aimed at bulking up its conventional military capabilities carry enormous implications. For Washington, South Korea's new militarization ventures represent additional weight to its delicate balancing game in the Asia-Pacific where the United States wants its allies to become more responsible for its security but at the same time, not create new conflicts that would require greater US military assets allocated to the Far East.

With South Korea currently engaged in a heated territorial dispute with Japan (which resulted in a brief standoff between the Japanese Self-Defense Force navy and the Republic of Korea navy on September 24) and considering South Korea's standing dispute with China over their maritime border on the Yellow Sea, Seoul's ability to further enforce its territorial claims will impact inter-regional relations in the near future.

And another fuse is set to the tinderbox region of Northeast Asia.

1. A similar trend can be seen with the South Korean navy. See Robert Farley, "South Korea: Asia's Other Rising Naval Power," The Diplomat, October 2, 2012.
2. Lee Byong-chul. "A Nuclear South Korea?" Project Syndicate, October 2, 2012.
3. For the economic aspects of South Korea's drive for energy independence see: "Future of South Korea's Energy Market on the Crossroads." Motley Fool, September 14, 2012.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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