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Defense reform hijacked by Kim Jong-un‘s diplomatic overture

With the diplomatic breakthrough between the two Koreas dominating most narratives in South Korea, concerns are growing that the inter-Korean detente may hinder the military’s efforts to overhaul its defensive posture.

Originally expected to be announced earlier this month, the defense reform plan remains unannounced to the public since Defense Minister Song Young-moo briefed President Moon Jae-in on the scheme on May 11.

The delay is feeding speculations whether the Moon administration, in part of its efforts to improve ties with North Korea, may be seeking to reduce the scope of the reform and possibly the upcoming military drill with the US to be held this August. 

“We are so self-conscious about Kim Jong-un, who we once talked about ‘decapitating’,” said Rep. Kim Hack-yong of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, referring to the clandestine operation targeting North Korea’s leadership.

“It is still unclear whether North Korea would completely abandon its nuclear program. Now we are losing perfect opportunities for the reform,” said Kim, who also served as a chairman of the National Assembly’s defense committee.  
North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap
North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap

One of the main reasons for the delay, the lawmaker says, is the Moon administration’s concern over the “decapitation plan” being included in the defense reform as an effort to boost retaliation capabilities against North Korea.

While “decapitation plan” is not an official term for the military operation, its basic concept is included in the “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” scheme, which is designed to demolish Pyongyang’s leadership with ballistic and cruise missiles in the event of an imminent nuclear attack.

Alongside the Kill Chain system and the Korea Air Missile Defense system, KMPR constitutes a key component of the defense reform, which calls for the military to establish a triple-layer anti-missile system by mid-2020 to fend off North Korea’s ballistic missile threat.

“The three-layered system will be completed when we accomplish the defense reform in 2023. By then, South Korea will have military capabilities for a middle power,” said Defense Minister Song after briefing the reform plan to President Moon.

One of key election pledges for President Moon, the defense overhaul largely consists of two parts: military structure and operational scheme. The latter includes a plan to transform the current operational plan into a more aggressive one.

While the overhaul in the military structure -- such as reduction in the troop number, service period and even the number of generals -- were announced to the public, the plan to adopt a new operational scheme is still shrouded in secrecy.

Cheong Wa Dae and the Defense Ministry denied the allegation that the government is delaying the announcement to maintain the peaceful mood with North Korea, saying the defense reform and inter-Korean detente are “separate issues.”

“Much discussion and debate are needed before announcing the defense reform plan,” a defense official said under the condition of anonymity, citing official rules. “Song’s briefing to President Moon was not a final report… they would require more discussion and reports.”

There is also speculation that the military would consider scaling down the scope of its upcoming combined military drill Ulchi Freedom Guardian -- a computer-based war game scheduled to take place this August.

While North Korea’s Kim Jong-un hinted that he would “understand” combined exercises during his meeting with South Korea’s top security adviser Chung Eui-yong in March, Pyongyang’s state-run media has returned to its previous harsh criticism of denouncing the drill as an “invasion scheme.”

Retired Lt. General Shin won-shik, who served as a chief operational strategist at Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it is quite likely that North Korea would demand “adjustment” to the UFG as the war game is to be held on the same month when a reunion of the two Koreas’ separated families is expected to take place.

“North Korea might say that it doesn’t make sense for South Korea and the US to stage a massive war drill when the separate families are reunited. It would be quite a good excuse for making such a demand,” said Shin.

In the joint statement adopted after the inter-Korean summit on April 27, President Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to hold the reunion event on the occasion of the National Liberation Day of Aug. 15

Asked about whether there is a plan to reduce the scope of the combined military drills -- including the ongoing Max Thunder air-to-air exercise -- the defense ministry said there is no plan to change the scale for now.

“There is no changes to our previous position on those annual military exercises, which are basically defensive in nature,” said the ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo.