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Security officials concerned by defense cuts

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and other top security officials expressed regret Wednesday after the parliament scaled down the defense budget despite growing threats from North Korea and fast changing security environment around the Korean Peninsula.

The National Assembly on Tuesday approved the 2013 national budget including 34.35 trillion won ($32.34 billion) in defense spending. The lawmakers cut around 290 billion won from the 34.64 trillion won proposed by the ministry while the welfare budget was sharply raised to about 100 trillion won.

Defense officials argued that the budget cut could compromise the nation’s defense posture against Pyongyang, especially at a time Seoul is poised to take an increasing role in its own defense after the transfer of operational control from the U.S. in 2015.

“The budget for welfare was raised by a great margin, while they raced to cut the budget for national defense. It is deeply worrisome that they appear not to give due consideration when national security is seriously challenged and ignored the need to invest (in defense),” a high ranking Cheong Wa Dae official said at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

Defense Minister Kim echoed the concerns.

“It is not desirable to cut the security budget and divert it to other purposes,” he told reporters. 
Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin (Yonhap News)
Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin (Yonhap News)

He expressed concern especially about the reduction of the budget for new equipment and improving defense capabilities by around 412 billion won.

“Some damage, such as delayed military enhancement is likely, so we have to manage projects well,” he said.

Kim also said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address Tuesday, in which he called for an end to the confrontation between the two Koreas, does not mean security threats to the South are gone, warning that Pyongyang could conduct further nuclear or missile tests without warning.

The North “has made consistent preparations for a nuclear test and can carry one out at any time if it chooses,” he said, adding that Pyongyang could use additional sanctions as pretext for a nuclear test.

Pyongyang has provoked the international community as recent as Dec. 12 when it fired a long-range rocket with an estimated range of over 10,000 kilometers.

The official at the presidential office pointed out that the country could develop advanced defense systems capable of paralyzing North Korea’s major artillery with a relatively small budget increase.

“It takes about 500 billion won to create a system that can take out over 90 percent of North Korea’s artillery in just five minutes. With an additional 500 billion we can shoot down all shells coming through the air and protect all of Seoul’s core facilities,” he said.

“We are in the final stage in the Thunder Project to destroy North Korea’s multiple rocket-launcher strike systems. If we had known that the government had financial room to support taxis, the Ministry of National Defense would have pushed to fund the project.”

The project was initiated by President Lee Myung-bak following the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island in November 2010. It seeks to develop high-tech weapons such as guided bombs aimed at neutralizing the North’s coastal artillery pieces hidden in caverns or underground.

With regard to the reduction in the mandatory military service term, which president-elect Park Geun-hye has pledged to shorten to 18 months, the official said that such changes need to be coupled with alternatives to make up for the decrease in defense capabilities the reduction of manpower will bring.

By Choi He-suk and Lee Sang-ju
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