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Renewed military reform plans indicate change in stance on security

Political issues likely to hamper implementation

The Ministry of National Defense renewed its military reform plans this week, giving momentum to measures that have been floating without significant development since 2005.

“The plans seem to show that the military’s top commanders have awakened after incidents such as the sinking of the Cheonan to the changes that have occurred during previous administrations,” Kim Dae-young of Korea Defense and Security Forum said.

While the Defense Ministry’s plans are aimed at bolstering the country’s defense and attack capabilities, experts say that securing the necessary budget and changing the command structure at the highest level of the military are likely to be hampered by political issues.

“The budget is very important but I don’t think the military has detailed plans for securing the funding. As it is not an issue that can be resolved within the current administration, the announcement can be regarded as a show of the ministry’s will to follow through with the proposed changes.” Yang Uk, senior research fellow at KDSF, said.

The rivaling parties also remain at odds over the details of the plans.

The reform blueprint was first drawn up in 2005 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but upon a delay in implementation, the plans were modified in 2009 and again in March this year.

Under the latest plans announced this Wednesday, the military aims to spend 187.9 trillion won ($165.6 billion) from 2012 until 2016 to strengthen its combat capabilities.

The troops will be reduced from the current 636,000 to 522,000 by 2022, while the proportion of the military made up of officers will be increased to 42.5 percent from 29.4 percent by 2025.

The Army will also see the establishment of special brigades for operations in mountainous regions, while the 1st and 3rd armies will be replaced by the Army operations command.

In addition, the military’s ground-to-ground ballistic missile capabilities will be drastically increased, while the Navy will set up a submarine command in 2015 and deploy six next-generation destroyers from 2019 to 2026.

The Marine Corps will expand with the addition of a unit based in Jeju Island and an aviation unit.

The Air Force will set up a 200-man aerospace command to monitor information-gathering satellites above the peninsula.

The plans also call for the military to secure intelligence assets and double the number of service personnel in the Cyber Command to 1,000.

In addition to strengthening the military, the reform plans could also have much longer lasting implications for South Korea, pundits said.

“The military is focused on the number of troops, but the plans will change it to become more technologically advanced, and these changes appear to be a step towards introducing a voluntary military system,” Kim said.

At present, South Korea operates a conscription system under which all men judged fit for the military need to serve for a minimum of 21 months.

“Strengthening combat capabilities is also part of the preparations for assuming wartime operational command in 2015, after which South Korea will take the lead in all operations occurring within the Korean Peninsula.”

Seoul and Washington are currently working on the schedule of handing over wartime operational command to South Korea in 2015. At present, the commander of the Combined Forces Command, a post held by the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, has operational control over all South Korean and U.S. forces.

Under plans, the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff will have operational command over the chief of each branch of the armed forces. In addition, the reform will give operational command to the chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy.

At present, the chief of each branch is mostly an administrative role.

Experts pointed out that the plans, not much different from the previous ones, may run into problems.

“Changing the command structure involves a number of factors including approval from the National Assembly, so it will be difficult for now,” Kim said. The view was echoed by Yang who said that it will only be possible if a president as the commander in chief of the military puts his or her full support behind the measures.

Kim also pointed out that the possibility exists that the next administration could make more changes to the plans.

By Choi He-suk  (