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S. Korea seeks biggest defense budget at W53tr

The Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that it was seeking a 5 percent increase in its budget for next year, with most of the total 52.9 trillion won ($44.7 billion) linked to personnel training and facilities maintenance.

“We will make sure to invest in beefing up our capabilities to counter any security threat, both conventional and unconventional,” the ministry said. The budget is drawn as South Korea seeks to deter aggression from North Korea amid stalled nuclear talks, while coping to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The ministry said it planned to spend $30.2 billion, or about 63 percent of the total, on training ($17.4 billion) and maintenance ($12.8 billion). That would mark the highest on-year growth in a decade, 7.1 percent.

Personnel training includes familiarizing service members with next-generation warfare tactics based on augmented and virtual reality settings, and carrying out operations in advanced combat uniforms.

Military bases in the meanwhile would adopt the latest technologies for operations, in line with the newer rules of engagement.

Service members will learn to utilize protective gear in case of a health crisis to promptly help with military as well as civilian efforts to curb an outbreak. Some of the members will be grouped into special units in charge of handling a biological and chemical outbreak.

Military hospitals in the meantime will be upgraded to timely respond to a health crisis with enhanced quarantine techniques advised by better-funded military medical institutions.

Artificial intelligence technologies will be used at posts bordering North Korea to enhance surveillance. The military was embarrassed twice recently, when a group of Chinese people snuck into the country via a sea route in May, and a defector returned to the North in July, all unnoticed.

Of the total, another $14.5 billion is earmarked for arms purchases and projects for better defense capabilities, up 2.4 percent from this year.

Some $5.4 billion is set aside for the KF-X project to develop the homegrown fighter by 2026, and another undertaking involving the production of new K-2 battle tanks.

Another $5.1 billion is assigned for improving firepower and reconnaissance to counter nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, with an eye on aggression from a nuclear armed North Korea.

The ministry also fixed $1.8 billion to take over wartime operational control from the United States by 2022. Seoul hosts 28,500-strong American troops, whose commander has led the Combined Forces Command between the two allies since its founding in 1978.

The rest is earmarked to carry out efforts to nurture key military technologies, including those needed in cyber and space warfare, and to help local defense companies make more exports.

The budget is set to go through a parliamentary review Thursday for approval, which would make it the second time the budget surpassed the 50 trillion won mark for a second straight year.

By Choi Si-young (