Possible automatic, across-the-board spending cuts by the U.S. government are feared to take the toll on the allied defense posture on the Korea Peninsula.
Experts said South Korea should ready necessary steps to ensure the impact of budget cuts, or “sequestration,” will not send any wrong signals to a provocative North Korea.
The U.S. Department of Defense said Tuesday there could be “certain impacts” as part of what it calls the “devastating consequences” of the spending cut, which will take effect unless the White House and Congress negotiate a deal by the end of this month.
“I don’t know specifically what the impacts are on South Korea or Japan. But we do expect certain impacts overall across the force globally,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters.
“We’ve been clear about the devastating consequences of a sequestration. ... I do know what our allies and partners are saying about sequestration, and they’re worried about it. And I don’t blame them. We’re worried about it, too.”
Mandating $1.2 trillion in a federal spending cut over the next decade, the sequestration is a policy procedure to tackle the massive federal budget deficit. It is included in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which resolved the so-called debt ceiling crisis by authorizing an increase in the debt limit.
To enforce the cutbacks for a decade, the sequestration is to implement a $600 billion cut in defense and the rest in non-defense spending. A Washington government report said last year that it would be “deeply destructive to national security.”
Regarded as part of the “fiscal cliff,” the sequestration was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013, but was delayed to March 1 under the last-minute compromise that approved the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.
“Although Washington stresses its security commitment to the defense of South Korea, we never know what could happen. America’s economy along with external conditions are not good, which obviously makes it tough for a quick economic recovery,” said a security expert, declining to be named.
“All this calls for Seoul to bolster its self-help defense measures rather than continuously seek a heavy reliance on the U.S. military. South Korea is at a critical point in terms of its defense and it is not a time for us only to focus on diplomatic measures.”
As the U.S. would work out a way to minimize any hurdles to its efforts to maintain military superiority, particularly amid an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry in the Asia-Pacific, its security commitment to the peninsula might not be seriously undermined due to its fiscal problems, analysts said. But there could be some changes in its military, they noted.
“While the U.S. will try to minimize the impact of sequestration on its missions in major hotspots, such as the Korean Peninsula, it could potentially delay the U.S. military relocation plans ― the Yongsan Relocation Plan and the Land Partnership Plan ― beyond 2016,” said Michael Raska, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
“The U.S. Forces Korea may also adjust its resource allocation in the training, maintenance and operations, travel, and civilian assignments. That said, however, the sequestration will not change the key mission templates that the USFK currently trains for.”
The most likely thing to occur in line with Washington’s fiscal challenges is increased demand for a hike in the so-called burden-sharing cost ― Seoul’s share of the cost for maintaining some 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Washington has asked Seoul to increase its share to 50 percent from the current 42 percent. The current agreement over Seoul’s contribution to the “Special Measurement Agreement” fund is to remain effective until 2013. For the burden-sharing for 2014, a new round of negotiations will commence this year.
Experts argued that Seoul could agree to some increase in the cost in exchange for other crucial deals such as a revision of the nuclear energy pact to expire in March 2014 that would allow Seoul to reprocess spent fuel.
Kim Yeoul-soo, politics professor at Sungshin Women’s University, raised the possibility that the sequestration could lead to a reduction in the level of allied troops’ combat readiness.
“What is worrisome is the possibility that the U.S. Army or Air Force here on the peninsula could scale down the size or frequency of their regular training including the allied military drills,” he said.
“It could also reduce non-combat contract-based staffers. All of that could have a direct bearing on the security of South Korea.”
After a decade of drawn-out warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has been reducing its ground troops, including marines. As part of its austerity plan last year, the Pentagon planned to reduce its Army troop level to 490,000 from 570,000 and the number of marines to 180,000 from 200,000 over the next decade.
Experts said this called for a bolstered role of South Korea’s Army in the event of a war on the peninsula. But some others argue that the Air Force and Navy should also play effective, vital roles in combat situations with their high-tech weapons systems.
Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, said that South Korea’s ground-troops might have to make up two-thirds of the ground forces required to stabilize the North in case of a contingency.
“South Korea has got to be prepared to do probably two-thirds of the ground force role. The U.S will provide some, and other allies like Canada and Great Britain will probably provide a little bit, but most of it’s going to have to be ROK (Republic of Korea) ground forces,” he told The Korea Herald in a recent interview.
“In any scenario where you envision sending troops into North Korea, the role of the air and Navy is much lower in those cases.”
In this regard, some experts said that the new Seoul government should rethink its campaign pledge to reduce mandatory military service by three months to 18 months, which they said could lead to a troop shortage with the country’s shrinking youth population.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org