South Korea currently ranks 12th in terms of economic power of nations. It ranks a little higher in international researchers’ comparison of military strength.
The oft-quoted Global Fire Power website listed the Republic of Korea as seventh in the world in its 2019 report. Based on a total of 55 metrics -- including weapons diversity, total population, military manpower and financial capabilities -- the GFP index covering 137 countries put South Korea below the US, Russia, China, India, France and Japan and above Britain, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Brazil, Iran and Indonesia. North Korea ranked 18th this year in the GFP survey, which excludes nuclear arms.
“The Republic of Korea Armed Forces maintains a good balance across all branches, in terms of military strength in 2019. The force’s total aircraft strength is ranked 5th while its total helicopter strength is 4th. Furthermore, it is also ranked the 4th best nation for its number of self-propelled and towed artillery, of which it has 2,140 and 3,854 respectively,” the GFP website wrote.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranked South Korea ninth in the world, with its 2018 military spending reaching $43.1 billion -- about one-fifteenth of the US’ $648.8 billion and one-sixth of China’s $250 billion, but almost at the same level with Japan’s $46.6 billion. The US News and World Report newspaper, based on its own research on nations’ influence on world states, found South Korea to be 10th most powerful in the world, with its total population of 51.5 million and gross domestic product of $1.5 trillion ($39,548 per capita by purchasing power parity).
Well, my internet surfing to review how global researchers look at the Republic of Korea and its military power came upon figures that are generous enough to arouse confidence and even pride in the global status of the country. Yet, looking deeper, I wonder how many of my compatriots are ready to share a sense of contentment.
The nation is filled with gloom, and the No. 1 cause is North Korea’s threats with nuclear arms. Since the Korean War, South Koreans have never forgotten the military threats from the North -- its large manpower of regular and reserve forces and the great array of tanks, guns and rockets aiming south across the Demilitarized Zone. In the 21st century, the North’s weapons of mass destruction pose a major headache to the world and frustrate the southern half of the Korean Peninsula.
The North has increased its asymmetric combat power with six nuclear tests since 2006 and numerous launches of ballistic missiles, but our internal state of readiness has declined as a result of politics. Military strength consists not only of manpower and equipment but also of such invisible elements as leadership of commanders, morale and discipline of soldiers and civilian support. Doubts about these factors have grown here over the last few years.
Since the government of President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017, waving an olive branch to the North, the ROK Armed Forces appear to have turned into a shy group of men and women whose commanders are cautious not to obstruct the government’s peace efforts. They seem to approve of the philosophy of those in power that the nation is better defended by dialogue rather than the armed forces.
Commander in Chief Moon has met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times and has proudly declared his role as an arbitrator for the denuclearization negotiations between the North and the US. The two militaries of the divided Korean Peninsula, in the meantime, signed an agreement to take substantial measures to bring down tension along the border.
Front-line guard posts were selectively removed on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, with much publicity given to the scenes of destruction. Warships were also moved back from the seaward demarcation line. Military exercises held since the Korean War -- some jointly with the US forces -- have been curtailed or discontinued with little objection from budget-conscious Washington.
The minister of national defense became a striking symbol of the ambiguity of the mission of the 630,000-strong ROK Armed Forces. During a National Assembly hearing, Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo failed to answer immediately when an opposition lawmaker asked if he believed North Korea was “our main enemy.” Reporters covering the session counted seven seconds before he said “yes.”
A comprehensive plan to slim down the military to a high-tech force has been formulated by previous administrations but it has been given a strong push under the Moon presidency, such as shortening the compulsory service period to 18 months and reducing the numbers of both enlisted personnel and generals. Retired officers voiced concern but not any general on active duty. Commanders of major outfits were investigated on corruption and other charges; the former chief of the Defense Security Command took his own life.
The arrival of a tiny North Korean fishing boat with four men aboard at the wharf of Samcheok Port in Gangwon Province last month was a wakeup call. It sailed several hundred kilometers from the seaward border without being detected by any patrol craft or the Coast Guard. Commanders of responsible Navy and Army units were punished but the incident proved that “infiltration” from the North has now become so much easier.
The area around the headquarters of the 2nd Navy Fleet responsible for the defense of the West Sea became the scene of an intensive manhunt after an unidentified man appeared near the base’s ammunition depot and escaped on the night of July 4. An innocent sailor allegedly “surrendered” at the request of the unit’s security officer, who feared punishment. Military police later arrested a seaman at a nearby guard post for deserting his place of duty to buy some drinks, according to news reports.
These episodes exposed problems in the military reporting system and erode trust in the defenders from top brass to young recruits. Still, the process of transferring wartime operational control from the US to Korea is in progress to install a Korean general as commander of the Combined Forces Command during Moon’s presidency. If things are not corrected, it is feared the handover would mean further jeopardizing the security situation on the peninsula.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.