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[Kim Myong-sik] S. Korean military costs a lot, loses trust

South Korea, 12th in the world in terms of GDP ranking, has a defense budget of 50.15 trillion won for 2020, equal to or $42 billion. The nation’s defense spending has grown steadily these years to a level comparable to major states in Europe -- 84 percent of Russia’s, 84 percent of Germany’s and 72 percent of France’s in 2018.

If the average increase rate of 6 percent over the past five years continues, South Korea will surpass Japan in defense expenditure by 2026. Supposing that Tokyo keeps its increase rate at the current 1.3 percent, Korea will overtake it to reach 71 trillion won against Japan’s 69.6 trillion won equivalent, according Defense Ministry estimates.

About a third of the total defense budget goes to the purchase of advanced weaponry such as F-35A fighters. Almost as much is set aside for salaries of officers and soldiers. A staff sergeant, the highest rank for conscripts, is to receive 540,000 won a month or a little more than a half of the government-set minimum wage for this year.

Average South Korean citizens, theoretically paying 1 million won ($800) on defense each year, can expect assurance for their security corresponding to their material sacrifice. Yet, ask any one of them if he or she feels safe from external threats, notably North Korea, the answer would certainly be negative. Why is it so?

US President Donald Trump is no doubt a major cause for South Korean unease. Last year, Trump surprised Korean officials, and probably Pentagon generals too, with demand that Seoul increase by fivefold its share of the cost for the upkeep of the 28,500 US troops in Korea because South Korea is “one of rich allies that rip off the US.”

But the amount was somehow settled at 1,039 billion won (about $860 million), an increase of 8 percent. Negotiations are still underway for the 2020 cost-sharing: Korea offered to pay about $1 billion this year, which would be increased by 7-8 percent annually to come to $1.3 billion in five years. Trump ordered his negotiator to grab the $1.3 billion target this year and to make an annual deal instead of setting up a five-year formula.

South Koreans are uncomfortable at the reports of the hard bargaining between the two allies while their common adversary is test-firing long- and short-range missiles. The bitter part of the Korea-US money deal is Washington’s hint of possible reduction in the size of the USFK. It is not unlikely that the status of US presence in Korea will be put to review the next occupant of the White House or Trump in his second term.

The worst thing that happened to the South Koreans’ sense of security is their thinning trust in their own armed forces. It is related to the false mood of peace that has arrived here since the summit dialogues in Singapore, Hanoi, Pyongyang and Panmunjom, involving the heads of the two Koreas and the US, and the Moon Jae-in administration’s extreme caution not to offend North Koreans with any provocative words or actions.

President Moon has offered material aid and high-level contacts for inter-Korean cooperation, which, however, met cold snubs sprinkled with insults on Seoul’s leadership from the North’s official mouthpieces. Patriotic citizens here deplore the defeatist posture in the South Korean armed forces while frustrations rise from watching the audacious face of Kim Jong-un in the televised scenes of rocket launches.

Our renouncement of nuclear armament as a faithful law-abiding member of the international community has been rewarded badly with an inevitable inferiority complex in both civilian and military communities in regard to the rogue state across the border. The psychological impact of sliding down to the weaker side in the decades-old military confrontation has caused lax discipline. Insubordination and sex crimes grew in and outside the barracks.

There were complaints that more Demilitarized Zone guard posts have been destroyed on the southern side than in the north under a military tension-reducing agreement of 2018. One of the remaining guard posts in the South was hit by high-caliber machinegun shots from a North Korean position last week. An automatic system of firing back, installed to respond to such events, did not work, and our guards fired warning shots half an hour later.

Media commentators blamed military authorities for their deliberate silence on the recent introduction of a squadron of F-35A fighters, a key element in the “Kill Chain” system for preemptive strikes on the North. About 4 trillion won ($320 million) will be paid for the purchase of the Lockheed Martin aircraft by 2021.

The government should let the taxpayers know it when their hard-earned money has been spent on the acquisition of the weapon that North Koreans fear most. If officials ignored this right of the people because it was worried about offending the enemy, it amounts to gross negligence. There were other instances of politics intervening in the business of defense.

Ranking operations officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force were called last week to the Blue House after North Korea complained of a joint exercise conducted in the sensitive northwestern seas. There, ranking National Security Council staffers reminded them sternly of the political impact such operations could have on the relations with North Korea.

The military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula has turned into an asymmetrical pattern in two decades of time. While one side has developed nuclear bombs and means of delivery, the other side has concentrated on conventional battle, entrusting the US ally to deal with the enemy’s weapons of mass destruction.

This is an extraordinary situation and a great deal of spiritual armament is required for our defense forces. Yet, the top credo for our military seems to be caution and restraint with the vain hope of bringing Pyongyang to denuclearization. To such timid armed forces, war is lost before fighting. We have to keep this from becoming our reality, and the top leadership should change their mind first.

Our money-obsessed ally should be awakened to the fact that the USFK essentially serves America’s own interests. On our part, most important is to restore public trust in their armed forces. Government and military leaders should prove that they are not scared of North Korean weapons of mass destruction and let the people believe that the combined war capabilities of the two allies are strong enough to keep the enemy from attempting to start a war again on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.