November 22, 2013

Korea’s Looming Defense Crisis: Can President Park Fly Clear of It?

Featuring Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

The op-ed below was written by Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific program, and translated into Korean and published by dongA.com.

The Republic of Korea is the verge of its biggest defense crisis since the outset of the Korean War.  Between 1948 and 1950, the United States was rapidly downsizing its armed forces in the wake of a costly conflict.  Decisions made by officials in Washington, D.C. placed enormous burdens on Seoul at a time when an unpredictable North Korean regime was secretly plotting an attack.  Today, America is slashing its military spending by the equivalent of one and a half Korean defense budgets a year, and it is seeking to transfer wartime operational control to the ROK by the end of 2015.  Meanwhile, two years after Kim Jong-un ascended to power, North Korea appears inexorably committed to building nuclear-tipped missiles, even while its failed economy and closed society are a powder keg waiting to ignite. 

Yet despite President Park Geun-hye’s impressive resolve, her administration is mired in domestic political fights, an opaque and rigid bureaucracy, fiscal constraints, and a lack of strategic unity.  After nearly a year since her election, President Park faces critical decisions on defense priorities and national security.  The decisions made in the Blue House over the next year or two may accelerate the looming crisis or at least dramatically ratchet up the risk that the ROK fails to deter conflict or fight it effectively should the unthinkable happen (again).

Although the Obama administration remains steadfast in its support for the U.S.-ROK alliance, the unintended consequences of sequestration and political gridlock, coupled with a strategic choice to invest shrinking defense procurement dollars in long-term investments, is accelerating Korea’s short-to-mid-term security challenges.  In effect, every decision the ROK makes on defense procurement is amplified and fraught with implications well beyond those of President Park’s predecessors.  If deterrence fails, the ROK armed forces would have to lead with its forces in being, not those it would like to imagine it would have in the fullness of time.

Compounding this predicament is a deterioration in the overall regional security environment.  Although ROK-China relations have improved under the leadership of Presidents Xi and Park, China is not likely to change its strategic policy of protecting North Korea.  And Japan’s military modernization and normalization policies under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, especially in the absence of reconciliation with its Northeast Asian neighbors, is only adding greater tension and uncertainty to the region.

In this highly charged and uncertain environment, North Korea’s status as the leading wild card in East Asia will continue to rise.  A recent report by the respected RAND Corporation, pointing to the heightened possibility of regime collapse given the internal contradictions of the Kim Jong-un regime, is but one of several recent indicators that the North is living on a knife’s edge.  Sudden change would most likely be catalyzed by miscalculation (going too far one too many times with a provocation and brinkmanship) or from a coup d’etat engineered by the elite.  Either way, the ROK may neither be in a position to prevent a conflict nor prosecute its swift and successful conclusion should it occur. 

The most immediate benchmark against which the Park administration will be judged concerns the oft-delayed decision over a new fighter.  An F-X process that in August appeared to tilt toward solely buying F-15 aircraft now is reported to be trending in the direction of solely buying F-35 aircraft.  If true, both decisions seem to reflect a lack of seriousness—and transparency--about the need for the ROK to maintain a balanced, capable force.  Remember that the ROK Air Force is rapidly facing a huge force structure gap in high-end fighters as it retires all of its F-4s by the end of this decade. 

The fighter gap matters because it is precisely in such transitions that adversaries tend to miscalculate.  The North Korean order of battle is an amalgamation of asymmetric means (nuclear weapons, missiles, and special operations forces) and vast conventional means.  Both its asymmetric and conventional forces, however inferior, will overtax Korea’s limited armed forces.  As the saying goes, quantity has a quality of its own, and the quantity of North Korean military systems would make it difficult for the ROK to reach and strike so many targets without enduring a heavy toll. 

Clearly the ROK needs a balanced force: one that preserves sufficient force structure to deter conflict and has sufficient payload capacity, speed and persistence to hit myriad targets in North Korea should it be necessary; and one that gradually adds some advanced stealth capabilities as they become proven and more cost-effective.  Thus, the Blue House has not only 8.3 billion reasons to spend its resources wisely, it also has a requirement to play a larger role in maintaining deterrence at a time when the United States is downsizing and North Korea is gambling on its demise.    

The fighter decision is but the next of a series of vital decisions facing the Park administration.  OPCON transfer, ballistic missile defenses, and the future command and control arrangements on the Korean Peninsula also will have to be made in a manner to balance near- and long-term risks and interests.  The die is not yet cast, but at this point one wonders where the voices are in the ROK to support a strong and steady defense capability to avoid a repetition of 1950.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

  • Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

    Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the Senior ...