ON JULY 27, 2018, the Ministry of National Defense released Defense Reform 2.0, representing a new path for the South Korean military. Officially announced by the Minister of Defense, Song Young-moo, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces is now pursuing several reforms to achieve its vision: the “realization of a strong military and a responsible national defense that supports the peace and prosperity of the nation.” These reforms include policies pertaining to the ROK Forces’ “hard power,” including their military technology, capabilities and structuring, and the ROK Forces’ “soft power,” including the welfare and livelihood of soldiers. These changes represent the Moon administration’s stance that the ROK Armed Forces needs a comprehensive reform. With the Defense Reform 2.0 currently amidst several voices of support as well as criticisms, there is a need for a closer evaluation of the Defense Reform 2.0 and its objectives and feasibility—is it a pragmatic change for South Korea or is it too overambitious, too sudden?
Defense Reform 2.0: Strong defense force, responsible national defense
The Moon administration’s reform has focused on transforming the ROK Armed Forces into a strong, independent defense force that has the capabilities to account for the nation’s security without the need to depend on the defense strength of the allies. “The main duty of the ROK Armed Forces, as mentioned in the Defense Reform 2.0, is to respond to a full spectrum of security threats posed towards the nation,” explained Cheon Seung-hyun, Director of Resource Management Reform in the Ministry of National Defense as he outlined the main missions of the National Defense 2.0 in an interview with The Yonsei Annals.
“The ROK Armed Forces plans to carry out the necessary reforms to fulfill this duty, and it would be broadly categorized into two main areas: the aspects of hard power and soft power respectively,” added Director Cheon. Just like what Director Cheon mentioned, Defense Reform 2.0 identifies two main means to fulfill its mission to prepare against the full spectrum of security threats. These include the effort to achieve hard power that aims to build “an elite force based on cutting-edge technology.” Likewise, soft power is set to create “the military that commensurates with the ROK’s status an advanced nation,” focusing on improving the welfare of the draftees serving the military service. Defense Reform 2.0 shows the ROK Armed Forces’ plan to invest its effort to concurrently improve both aspects of the military identified for the successful restructuring of the nation’s defense force.
Hard power: elite force based on cutting-edge technology
The Ministry of National Defense announced its aim to create a slimmer but stronger military, going through several structural changes to focus on revamping the military into a future-oriented defense force with advanced technology to prepare for the full-spectrum of security threats, some of which include the threats that the South Korean defense force is currently facing.
One significant aspect to this reform is the change in the command structure of the military, particularly pertaining to the transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) to the ROK Armed Forces. Currently, South Korea has yet to achieve full autonomy in national defense, with the U.S.-ROK CFC holding the authority to assign tasks to the ROK Armed Forces in times of war. However, with this new reform, the ROK defense forces will have the highest authority in times of war. This move towards the reform goes in line with the vision of Defense Reform 2.0 in guaranteeing a “responsible national defense,” with the ROK Armed Forces taking responsibility for its defense without excessive dependence on the military strengths of its allies. To ensure this transition, the Ministry of National Defense has pledged for their continuous effort to acquire the necessary defense capabilities crucial for the transition of the wartime OPCON.
Given the gravity of this implication, the ROK Forces takes first command over the U.S.-ROK CFC to strengthen Korea’s defense capabilities through transforming its military into an advanced, future-oriented defense force. The military aims to revamp its internal units by incorporating new weapons and technology. This incorporation includes implementing drones, automated combat systems, as well as the warrior platform*. These efforts create troop-saving units that the Ministry of Defense ultimately strives for. Additionally, the Ministry promises to strengthen its information technology by acquiring surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, such as military reconnaissance satellites. Lastly, there is also the plan to strengthen the military’s capabilities in long-range precision strikes to enhance South Korea’s strategic deterrence capabilities. Given the current and persistent security concerns, the Moon administration aims to secure defense capabilities required for an autonomous national defense through these tangible adaptations to the military.
With an increase in the technologically reliant defense, the ROK Armed Forces plans to shift away from a manpower-centered military. For this reason, the military concurrently aims to create troop-saving unit structures, reducing the size of the active-duty troops from 618,000 soldiers to 500,000 by the year 2022, which is a reduction of 118,000 soldiers. Such decision was also inspired from the population crisis that South Korea is currently facing; in 2017 the nation reached the lowest fertility rate in history at 1.05, with only 357,000 babies born last year. Although the population crisis has been an ongoing concern for previous administrations as well, the Moon administration is now facing a much elevated level of severity that is reaching a critical level. With a number of draftees in the military expected to face a continuous and drastic decline, the following transition in the military structure is in need: it would be simply impossible to sustain the current troop-based military system with the declining demographics.
With the transition from the reliance on manpower to reliance on technology, the military is also reducing the length of military service for draftees, with the soldiers from the Army and the Marine Corps serving 18 months of military service in 2022 instead of the original 21 months. As this would mean that the ROK Armed Forces is discharging the soldiers, who are proficient in their duties, earlier than the original term, the Ministry of Defense is preparing corresponding solutions to compensate for this loss. Namely, the military will aim to largely expand the proportion of the civilian manpower that replaces the professional positions in the military from the current 5% to 10%. This increased civilian manpower would replace the current noncombatant military positions that require professional knowledge and long-term commitments, leaving soldiers for the primarily physical assignments.
Soft power: the military with better welfare and respect for human rights
Soft power, as the Ministry of National Defense identifies it, is the idea of creating a military that is “commensurate with the ROK’s status an advanced nation.” This concept has sparked the effort of the ROK Armed Forces to improve the welfare of the soldiers. These efforts include revising salaries and changing aspects of the barracks culture. The reform strives to change the military culture to ensure that the military service for individuals serves as an opportunity for the soldiers to receive benefits while serving their duties, rather than having to sacrifice for the country.
One major aspect of the “soft power” reforms is to allow mobile phone usage by the soldiers after their work hours. This will apply to most units with the exception of those with high security concerns. In addition, tasks such as cleaning communal areas and weeding will be outsourced to civilian workforces, giving soldiers less duties outside of their training.
Most notable to the “soft power” reforms is systematic increase in the salaries. This measure is taken to ensure that soldiers are not in need of external financial support during their military service. In addition, the raised salaries can also serve as well-needed support for a soldier’s reintroduction into the society after the completion of their military services. The Moon administration promised at least a 33% increase in the soldiers' salaries by 2020, and an additional 25% rise by 2022. For example, this salary increase resulted in the monthly salary of a sergeant being increased to ￦406,000 this year, with another planned rise to ￦676,000 by 2022. With the wages of the soldiers often being criticized as being considerably poor, the Defense Reform 2.0 attempts to respond to such voices by offering better financial incentives to show appreciation to the sacrifices made by the soldiers.
Reform: evaluating its feasibility
Since its release, the Defense Reform 2.0 has become a massive topic of debate, with the subject of national defense being a critical topic of interests for many Korean citizens. The reform has been welcomed by many who seek for fresh innovation and transition in the military, as well as those who have yet to serve their military service. “It is definitely pleasant news to hear that the length of the military service is being reduced. Not only can I now have more time to prepare for employment in the future, but I can also waste less time in my precious 20s,” commented Cho Min-woo (Fresh., UIC, Integrated Science & Engin. Field).
However, as much as the idea of the new defense force may look appealing to many, there are also several voices of concern that express the view that the reforms are too overambitious and optimistic, and even put the nation’s security at stake. Of primary concern is how the government will pay for the proposed changes. The Moon administration created a plan for a systematical increase in the defense budget. Each year, the defense budget will increase 7.5% until the defense expenditure amounts to 3% of the total national budget. However, some of the defense experts are still expressing skepticisms.
In an interview with the Annals, Lee Il-Woo, the director of the Korean Defense Network, a nongovernmental organization that consults defense policy research and the press, labeled the Defense Reform 2.0 as “an optimistic policy that lacks practicality.” Among several significant problems identified by Director Il, the reduction in the length of military service was identified as a huge loss of South Korean defense capacity by Director Il: “What we are overlooking right now is that we need to take into consideration the length of the training taken to ensure that the soldiers are fully prepared to fulfill their roles.” Director Il has commented that it takes a significant amount of time and effort to train a soldier in specialized fields, such as operating large military vehicles or artilleries. He added, “a reduction in the length of military service would automatically mean that we are compromising our soldiers who would be the most skillful in their roles—we are sending them back home just when they are finally ready to perform.”
Il also pointed out that despite his support for the improvement in the nation’s treatment towards the soldiers, such as the financial incentives as well as the improvement in infrastructure, he fears that the Moon administration’s pursuit of securing both technological advancements and better treatments for the soldiers would ultimately end up as a failure due to the restriction in budget. “Since the implementation of the organization [the Korean Defense Network], we have constantly spoken out for the need for the rise of the defense budget to 3% of the national budget, and despite the Moon administration’s effort, the salary of the soldiers is rising too significantly to the extent where there would be little left for investment in technology. I mean how can you shoot two rabbits when you only have one bullet?"
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Times have changed, and there is undoubtedly the need for the defense force of the nation to go through the necessary transformations according to the change in circumstances. Defense Reform 2.0 signals the Moon administration’s bold attempt to achieve an enhanced defense force capable of bearing the responsibility of autonomy. However, it has been a major topic of debate so far, with one party supporting the transition while others deem it too pre-mature. It is of utmost importance that the Moon administration pursues the Defense Reform 2.0 with pragmatism. There is the need to consider if the changes are viable for completion within the term of his registration and if it can be sustained even after his administration. After all, just as Director Il said, we really cannot afford to “shoot two rabbits” with “one bullet”: we might risk the chance of losing both.
*Warrior Platform: Incorporation of an advanced technology in military supplies, such as equipment and clothing used by “warriors,” the normal combatant units that form the basis of the Army