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Tis’ the season, to (burden) share September 27, 2010

Posted by bfadtest in Analysis.
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by Risa Trump

Today the U.S. government spends at least $2 billion annually to permanently station 28,500 American troops in South Korea.  Less than half of this – 40 percent to be precise – is reimbursed by South Korea.  This cost is attributed largely to the mission of deterring North Korea, but does not fully account for an able and fully equipped South Korean military force.

A modern South Korean force suggests that the U.S. could scale back its spending while still deterring North Korean aggression (and be prepared should it ever come).  As Senator McCain (R-AZ) remarked in his opening statement at last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, “there is no doubt…that South Korean forces are among the most capable and best equipped in the world.”

The worry, of course, is what the North Koreans are up to. North Korea is committed to a draconian “military first” policy in which nearly a quarter of its GDP goes to defense (estimated between $1.5 -$5 billion).  This buys a standing army ostensibly 1.1 million strong, with another 4.7 million troops in reserve and 620 combat aircrafts, 3,500 tanks and a 360-ship navy. South Korea’s force of 686,000 active troops and 4.5 million in reserve, supported by 538 combat aircrafts, 2,300 tanks and a 230-ship navy, looks paltry by comparison.   (See the International Institute of Strategic Studies.)

Don’t forget, though, that you get what you pay for. With an estimated $25.9 billion defense budget for 2011, South Korea more than quintuples their northern neighbor’s spending on defense.  Its smaller force is far more professional, modern and capable than North Korea’s.  By contrast, nearly all of North Korea’s conventional weapons systems are of Soviet design and hail from before 1960 – a consequence of a national income that is 3 percent of its rival’s, at $40 billion.

North Korea’s nuclear bomb program is, among other things, a last-ditch attempt to maintain balance with the South.  That threat is immature and unreliable.  At the same SASC hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson reported that North Korea lacks the ability to reliably deliver its nuclear warheads. Because its military cannot be adequately maintained or modernized, North Korea views its nuclear program as a way to gain strategic advantage to the South. Instead of investing in traditional military infrastructure, North Korea has decided to develop a trump card that reduces the probability that South Korea will offensively or even defensively attack, as evidenced by lack of response to the March 26th Chenoan sinking.

Of course, the prospect of nuclear war must be taken seriously and justifies major U.S. commitments.  Yet, over the years, U.S. has heavily invested in South Korea, and that investment has paid off in a meaningful way. Commitments to modernize South Korea’s military have increased capacity and capability, enough to counter any aggression by its neighbor to the north.  South Korea’s economy has grown so significantly that it is now one of the G-20 major economies, and its political development has meant that virtually all parts of Korean society have democratized.

Given this progress, such a heavy-cost U.S. presence seems unnecessary.  Nevertheless, after the Chenoan attack, the transfer of wartime control was pushed back from 2012 to 2015 per the request of the South Korean government. The delay was not the result of a U.S. assessment indicating the South Koreans were inadequately prepared to stand alone but instead of a sticky diplomatic situation in which the U.S. would appear to betray its long-time ally should the extension not be agreed upon.

This decision was short-sighted.  For the foreseeable future, there will always be an excuse to postpone this transition.  Taking a step back, though, it is clear that South Korea is ready and no longer needs step-by-step guidance on military preparation.  Future U.S. relations with South Korea will require interdependence.  The U.S. ought to consider the strength of the South Korean forces and the burden sharing that is appropriate among allied nations.

(Photo Credit: Christian Science Monitor, Secretaries Gates and Clinton look at North Korea.)

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