Strategic Posture Review: South Korea

Strategic Posture Review: South Korea

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until the Cold War structure took shape, the Korean Peninsula was a geopolitical fault line between the continental forces of China and Russia and the maritime forces of Japan and America, and an arena in which a struggle for expansion of influence played out. Upon the end of Japan’s colonial rule in 1945, the Korean peninsula was suddenly transformed into a stage for the ideological confrontation between the East and West, centered around the United States and the Soviet Union, despite the Korean people’s desire to build an independent nation. Since 1948, the 85,270 square miles that make up the peninsula have been divided in two: in the south, the Republic of Korea, a liberal democracy based on a market economy with a population of 50 million; and on its northern half, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship with a population of 22 million.

In the processes of independence, division, and — from 1950-53 — war, the United States established itself as the single most important ally for the Republic of Korea, while North Korea, which had undertaken the invasion of the South with the blessings of the Soviet Union and China, remained the most direct threat to its security.

During the Cold War era, apart from securing political and economic cooperation from the U.S. and Japan, the ROK’s foreign policy emphasis focused on trying to build support in the international community, so as to gain the advantage in its rivalry with the North, which was being aided by China and the non-aligned group. Despite ideological parallels making Western Europe a natural source of support, the authoritarian rule of the Park Chung-hee regime in the 1960s and 1970s and the Chun Doo Hwan regime in the 1980s created obstacles to furthering relations, and at times resulted in South Korea’s international isolation. Later, following the end of the Cold War, liberals in the South advocated for easing tensions with the North as well as for policies designed to lift the country’s isolation. Nevertheless, the Park Cung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan governments engaged in only limited contact with Pyongyang, putting more effort into maintaining justifications for their oppressive domestic policies and authoritarian rule than on overcoming the Cold War structure.

The last remnants of that structure have now disappeared elsewhere in the world. But it still exists on the Korean Peninsula, and the prospects of replacing it with a stable peace seem remote to this day. Nonetheless, the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, the subsequent German reunification, and the collapse of the Soviet Union did not leave the Korean peninsula entirely untouched. In 1998, after accomplishing the first democratic transition in its history with the election of Kim Dae-jung as president, the Republic of Korea started to regard a posture of system-to-system competition with the North — itself in the grips of starvation — as outdated. The ideological war was over. The South, with its engagement in direct humanitarian aid to the North, had clearly won. With democratization, South Koreans began to see the North once again as a partner in a common destiny. Exposing the North to the outside world seemed the best hope for a long-term program of economic recovery and the reduction of hostilities, leading the South Korean government to seriously consider entering a process of reunification.


President Roh Moo-hyun took office in early 2003 in the midst of the second North Korean nuclear crisis, following the failure of the first high-level talks between the Bush administration and the North Korean regime in October 2002, and after the positive effects of the first inter-Korean summit talks had been squandered. The situation was complicated by the volatile regional politics of the moment, with relations between the U.S. and China souring, and the nationalist government of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi engaging in “assertive diplomacy” that exacerbated regional tensions. On top of that, the Bush administration’s demand to completely reconfigure the U.S.-ROK alliance presented another challenge for the Roh government.

“The National Security Strategy of the ROK” published in 2004 revealed the outline of the Roh government’s goals, which amounted to transforming the Korean Peninsula from an arena of struggle among major powers into a Northeast Asian hub of peace and prosperity. To do so required the creation of a firm foundation for incremental unification, first by resolving the North Korean nuclear issue via dialogue, which would subsequently pave the way toward a formal and definitive peace on the Korean Peninsula. Simultaneously, restoring and promoting a future-oriented ROK-U.S. alliance required South Korea to strengthen its defense posture by increasing its own responsibility and role in defending itself from the North as well as other unspecified external threats. The Roh government also attempted to take advantage of deepening economic cooperation in the Northeast Asia region as a means to achieving security cooperation.

In the inter-Korean relationship, the Roh government expanded the scope of cooperation, broadening economic and humanitarian exchanges and introducing several confidence-building measures through working- and general-level dialogues. Mutual hostility eased slowly but surely, and reconciliation came to the fore, with the second inter-Korean summit between President Roh and Kim Jong-il taking place in October 2007.

The fourth round of the Six Party Talks produced a joint statement on the goals and principles of the talks in September 2005. The fifth round resulted in the February 2007 agreement on the cessation of North Korean nuclear activities under the monitoring of U.S. and IAEA officials. And the sixth round gave rise to the October 2007 agreement on the disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and the initial declaration of North Korea’s nuclear history. When President Roh left the Blue House, as South Korea’s presidential office and residence is known, the North Korean nuclear issue was under control.

Readjustment of the ROK-U.S. alliance was not easy, for the U.S. demanded a holistic reshaping of its structure. This included reducing U.S. forces in Korea (USFK), which had been the most critical issue between the two countries for more than 50 years, as well as relocating U.S. military bases to a few hub bases and reversing the division of labor in defending South Korea. The Roh government was also asked to dispatch troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, despite heavy protests from its political base. Overall, however, the readjustments were achieved to the relative satisfaction of both sides.

Relationships with other neighboring countries also ended up enhanced, although the relationship with Japan was strained for some years due to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and territorial challenge over Dokdo Island. The relationship with China underwent some strain as well. Nevertheless, trilateral summits between South Korea, China, and Japan were held discretely from, or on the sidelines of, other international conferences, such as the ASEAN+3 and APEC. The ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral summits also resumed in order to discuss North Korean issues and other Northeast Asian concerns. The necessity for multilateral talks on regional peace and security was widely acknowledged, and working- and summit-level discussions saw the active exchange of ideas. In 2008, when the new Korean administration of President Lee Myung-bak took office, assessments of the international environment were dominated by optimistic forecasts.

Under Lee, most of the security policies pursued by the previous liberal administrations of the past decade were repealed or shifted into more conservative directions. The backdrop of these shifts was the changing international and regional security environment, stabilized during the last years of the Bush administration, and the advent of the new administration of President Barack Obama. For the government of President Lee, the focus of security and foreign policies moved from maintaining peninsula stability to changing the status quo in favor of the South. To achieve this, the previous progressive approach towards North Korea was replaced by the principle of reciprocity, with economic aid and humanitarian assistance to North Korea no longer taken for granted. From the new conservative leadership’s point of view, the previous progressive governments’ conciliatory approach to China also needed to be corrected. Finally, the alliance with the U.S. needed to be better tended, with the hope that by enhancing ROK-U.S. relationships, South Korea might reduce spending on the military advancement plan pursued by the previous Roh government.

With a tougher stance toward North Korea, and freed from the concerns of regional major-power rivalry, the Lee government announced its intentions to further upgrade the U.S.-ROK alliance to a “Strategic Alliance.” When China questioned such a strategic alliance and its real implications, expressing outright discomfort by stating that “the U.S.-ROK alliance was the byproduct of the past Cold war era,” the Lee government also upgraded its relationship with China, from the “comprehensive cooperative partnership” to a “Strategic Cooperative Partnership.” It later followed the same track with Russia. After Koizumi was succeeded in Japan by prime ministers who tacitly pledged not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, the ROK-Japan relationship could also be defined as a “Future-oriented Mature Partnership.” As a result, South Korea’s relationship with the four major powers surrounding the peninsula became more stabilized.

For the Lee government, non-traditional security issues — terrorism, large-scale natural disasters, food and energy concerns, and climate change — now became the focus of security and foreign policy. Concurrent with the international financial crisis, the Lee government attached special importance to economic diplomacy, such as hosting the upcoming G-20 summit in the fall of 2010. The Lee government has placed little emphasis so far on foreign policy, despite the fact that there remain potential causes of serious friction with the U.S. and China, and no doubt with the North. Nonetheless, Lee has been in office only two years, and it is still early to evaluate concrete policy outcomes while many security-related policies are still evolving.


The North Korean policy of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments, 1998-2007

Based upon the conviction that South Korea enjoyed strategic superiority over the North, the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments pursued an engagement policy from 1998-2007. Aimed at producing incremental systemic changes in North Korea, the policy above all sought to avoid any sudden absorption of the North into South, due to fears of experiencing the same kind of socio-economic upheaval that followed German reunification. Amid the ongoing military standoff, the engagement policy bore two summit meetings, mainly due to strenuous efforts from the South.

In June 2000, President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met at the historic first summit talks, which resulted in the “June 15 Joint Declaration.” This document stipulated that reunification shall be resolved on the initiative of the two sides, based upon the common elements of their unification proposals, and that the two Koreas shall promptly resolve humanitarian issues and consolidate mutual trust by promoting economic cooperation. Following the summit, the scale and range of inter-Korean dialogue grew to include humanitarian issues like reuniting separated families, railway connections, preliminary military talks, and joint planning of economic cooperation.

President Roh further expanded the scope of exchanges and joint projects like the Mount GumGang Tourism Zone and the Gaesung Industrial Complex, both positioned on the two major North Korean military corridors used to invade the South during the Korean War in 1950-1953. Economic cooperation covered the areas of agriculture, forestry and joint exploration of natural resources in the North. Reunion of separated families increased dramatically, and socio-cultural and religious contacts also produced a wide range of joint cooperation projects. Working-level and general-level military dialogues brought an end to verbal harassment along the military demarcation line (MDL), and introduced new measures to prevent accidental military clashes in the West Sea and to set up a joint fishery area around the northern limit line (NLL), which has functioned as a naval MDL, despite the North’s ongoing challenges.

On Oct. 4, 2007, the second inter-Korean summit adopted “The Declaration for Development of Inter-Korean Relations and Peace and Prosperity.” Before and after this summit, roughly 50 high-level dialogues were held, including the First South-North Prime Ministerial talks, the Second Defense Ministerial Talks, and the South and North Joint Economic Cooperation Committee. The volume of trade between Seoul and Pyongyang reached $1.79 million in 2007, more than 40 percent of North Korea’s entire foreign trade. Human exchange and other cultural visits also increased 56 percent.

The Roh government considered that increasing inter-Korean cooperation lessened military tension, attenuated the North’s hostility to the south, and led the South to exert its influence on the process of the Six Party Talks.

The North Korean policy of the Lee Myung-bak government, 2008-present

Critics of the progressive governments, however, pointed out that the expansion of inter-Korean relations met North Korea’s economic needs in the form of food and fertilizer assistance at a time when a North Korean collapse seemed inevitable. President Lee Myung-bak won election in 2008 campaigning on a North Korean policy of “Denuclearization, Openness and 3,000” as an alternative to the engagement approach. The three pillars referred to demands that North Korea first forgo its nuclear weapon program and open its doors to the outside world, after which South Korea would assure that North Korean economic growth reached $3,000 GNP per capita.

The policy was a variation of the Bush administration’s first-term coercive policy of promoting regime change, and reflects the Lee government’s belief that “malign neglect” should be applied to North Korea, which cannot survive without external assistance. Key players in the Lee government even argue that the South would not be harmed by halting all inter-Korean contacts, and that replacing the existing armistice agreement ending the Korean War with a definitive peace treaty would only serve to prolong the Kim Jong-il regime.

For the two full years of the Lee presidency, no inter-Korean ministerial talks have been held, and the new government has not allowed any private contacts or exchange programs. Pursuing a campaign pledge not to respect the joint declarations of the inter-Korean summit meetings of 2000 and 2007, Lee cut food and fertilizer assistance to the North, to exploit the latter’s food shortage and economic hardship as a means of extracting concessions.

Political tensions and physical confrontation have since returned. In July 2008, North Korean soldiers killed a South Korean female tourist in the vicinity of the Mount Gumgang tourism zone, leading to the closure of the tourism project. There have also been a series of acrimonious statements and actions from North Korea, including cutting off the hotline installed at the liaison office in Panmunjom since the early 1970s, stopping the crossing of traffic in the MDL, proclaiming a “confrontational posture towards the South,” nullifying every political and military agreement, and renewing naval clashes, which resulted in casualties to the North in November 2009. In December 2009, North Korea attempted to abrogate the NLL by designating a “peace-time firing zone” around the NLL, and in January and February 2010 the North Korean army fired artillery volleys into the zone for the first time, under the pretext of routine exercises.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that in October and December 2009, special emissaries of both sides were secretly in contact two or more times to explore the possibility of a third summit meeting, this time between Lee Myung-bak and Kim Jong-il. The South proposed that the two leaders discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, after which President Lee, on his return to Seoul from Pyongyang, would bring multiple South Korean POWs and abductees with him. North Korea asked the South to change its policy towards North Korea, respect the June 15 Joint Declaration and the Oct. 4 Declaration, and to provide 400,000 metric tons of grain upfront. For the moment the contacts have stalled, and although the Lee government has now openly expressed its eagerness to hold the third summit talks, few experts believe a summit could remedy the seriously aggravated level of distrust between the two sides. Rather, each side would attempt to take advantage of the event without restoring their relationship.


The role of the Roh Moo-hyun Government, 2003-2007

Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons program presented a direct threat to national security and a challenge to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, President Roh believed it represented an opportunity as well as a crisis. Should the Six Party Talks make progress and inter-Korean relations improve, it would be possible, in Roh’s belief, to establish a definitive peace on the Korean peninsula so as to move forward to de facto and de jure unification in a phased manner. As part of this game plan, key players of the Roh government set three goals: restoring the Agreed Framework; re-launching vigorous diplomatic efforts to address new U.S. concerns on Pyongyang’s highly enriched uranium activities; and reaching a comprehensive and workable solution for overarching economic and energy cooperation, bilateral diplomatic normalization, and replacing the current armistice system with a definitive peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.

In this context, the Roh government was eager to play an active part in the Six Party Talks, and when it succeeded in bringing North Korea back to the table following a 13-month deadlock in June 2005 — by sending a special envoy to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il — U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to acknowledge the unique role the South Korean side might play. The Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks adopted on Sept. 19, 2005, included a clause stating that, “The directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum,” in reference to Roh’s vision.

Later that year, in November, Presidents Roh and Bush agreed in a summit meeting that “moving from the current armistice mechanism to a peace mechanism would contribute to full reconciliation and peaceful reunification on the Korean Peninsula.” In his summit talks with Kim Jong-il in October 2007, Roh pressed Kim to “work together to discuss how to declare the end of the Korean War in the three or four-party summit talks that involve leaders from countries directly related to this issue.”

Bad cop: The role of the Lee Myung-bak government

In contrast to the Roh government’s emphasis on establishing a permanent peace, the Lee government highlights unification under a “liberal democratic” regime, rather than peaceful coexistence, as a central policy goal. With regard to the Six Party Talks, the Lee government announced that it regarded concrete results in terms of nuclear dismantlement more important than the process per se, and would oppose allowing any ambiguity in further agreements with the North. The Lee government responded to deteriorated inter-Korean bilateral relations by cutting off all aid as a means of pressuring Pyongyang to adopt a more conciliatory position.

As part of this firm stance, the Lee government also pressured the Bush administration not to compromise in 2008. For example, it argued against rushing to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for the North’s initial declaration of nuclear activity in June 2008, believing that Pyongyang could not help but soon accept intrusive verification measures far beyond those foreseen in the February and October 2007 agreements of the Six Party Talks. When the Bush administration did postpone removing North Korea from the list, and Kim Jong-il reportedly collapsed of a stroke in late August 2008, the Lee government insisted on shifting the focus of North Korean policy from denuclearization to the creation of joint countermeasures for a post-Kim Jong-il scenario in North Korea.

In response, however, North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Young-nam of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, quickly warned that Pyongyang would conduct a second nuclear test and walk away from the obligations of the Six Party agreements. In early October 2008, the Bush administration complied with the commitment to lift the state sponsor of terrorism listing. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il, once back to work, began to set in motion offensive maneuvers as the Obama administration assumed power in January 2009. Rejecting U.S. Special Representative Stephen Bosworth’s offer to visit Pyongyang, the Kim regime raised the level of tension — launching a long-range missile in April, restoring the disabled facilities in Yongbyon, enriching uranium and finally conducting the second nuclear test in May 2009. The Sept. 19 Joint Statement as well as the Feb. 13 and Oct. 3 Agreements were all effectively broken, turning back the Six Party Talks’ achievements between 2005 and 2007.


Realignment of the ROK-U.S. alliance during the Roh-Bush period, 2003-2007

Most Koreans have no doubt about the pivotal role played by the ROK-U.S. alliance in the security of the ROK and the stability of the Korean peninsula since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1954. However, it is also apparent that, due to the two allies’ differences in national interest and priorities, close cooperation and political amity have never been a natural course of events.

President Bush’s policies on a wide range of security issues overshadowed the legacy of President Kim Dae-jung, who spent the last years of his presidency defending in vain his government’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea. As the united front between Seoul and Washington over the North Korean question became increasingly dysfunctional, relations in the ROK-U.S. alliance also began to deteriorate. In summer 2002, the killing of two middle-school-aged girls by a U.S. army vehicle during a drill provoked near-daily mass demonstrations demanding an apology and the amending of the U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

From the Bush administration’s point of view, the Seoul government allowed the accident to become one of the most critical political issues of the December 2002 Korean presidential campaign. Meanwhile, with an eye toward the imminent Iraq war, the Bush administration’s resentment of the Korean Ministry of National Defense had been growing since early 2002, for the latter’s resistance to consultations on readjusting the U.S.-ROK military alliance.

Immediately after the inauguration of another progressive Roh Moo-hyun government in February 2003, the Bush administration pushed strongly and swiftly for a threefold agenda: the deployment of South Korean troops to Iraq with political and diplomatic support, a significant reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea (USFK), and a wide-ranging readjustment of the U.S.-ROK alliance. The Roh government responded with a comprehensive roadmap based upon a three-pronged approach: upgrade the ROK-U.S. alliance to a more horizontal and balanced relationship; cooperate with the reduction of USFK from 37,500 to about 25,000 troops by the end of 2008 (as well as the relocation of U.S. bases in Korea, including the headquarters of the USFK in Seoul and the Second U.S. Infantry Division along the MDL, to Pyongtaek, a port city in the mid-west coastal region); and increase South Korean military capability aimed at allowing Seoul to play a leading role in defending itself from invasion by the North.

From its initial days in office, the second Roh government expressed its willingness to further develop the future Korea-U.S. relationship into a “full partnership.” In exchange for the troop reductions in USFK, the South Korean deployment to Iraq, and an increase in South Korean defense spending, the Roh government insisted on a more active role in the North Korean nuclear issue, as discussed above.

After both sides completed the readjustment of the alliance by mid-2005, they decided to further develop their relationship to “a comprehensive, dynamic and mutually beneficial alliance” in line with the “full partnership” vision of 2003. In November 2005, the “Joint Declaration on the ROK-U.S. Alliance and Peace on the Korean Peninsula” agreed to launch a strategic dialogue, named the Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership (SCAP), to coordinate any issue of interest to each side. In light of all these developments, including the nuclear talks with North Korea, the Roh government decided the time was ripe to discuss the core issue of the U.S.-ROK military alliance: the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the commander of USFK to the ROK chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In February 2007, the military authorities formally announced that the transfer will take place on April 17, 2012.

Military Modernization by the Roh Government, 2003-2007

Unlike his political supporters, who wanted to melt guns and cannons into plows, the human rights lawyer-turned-president Roh encouraged a build-up and modernization of South Korea’s armed forces, to match national capabilities with the immediate North Korean threat as well as unspecified potential long-term threats. The decision was taken in the context of multiple factors, including the emerging rivalry between China and Japan, U.S. unilateralism and questions about Washington’s security commitment (evidenced by the USFK troop reduction), and South Korea’s growing national capability in the defense sector. It was also based on Roh’s personal understanding of Korean history from the 19th and 20th centuries, which convinced him that the ROK needed to both assume a leading role in deterring North Korea and develop independent operational planning and force-management capabilities.

Major investment concentrated on converting a manpower-intensive and conventional force structure into a technology-intensive and qualitatively advanced force structure. This also meant developing an intelligence, knowledge and network-centric structure by increasing C4ISR assets (including surveillance and reconnaissance, such as AWACS and ground tactical C4I systems), precision strike capabilities (F-15K fighter jets and various guided missiles) and an interception and protection force (Aegis destroyers, K1A1 tanks and 214-class submarines). The first North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 accelerated and enhanced this trend. Total military manpower was scheduled to be reduced from 681,000 in 2005 to 500,000 in 2020, tailored to the requirements of future wars for high-quality elite forces supported by high-technology equipment.

As for required weapons systems, the Roh government allocated an appropriate level of the defense budget and implemented defense reform in a range of areas, including build-up, organization and management of manpower, acquisition and logistics support systems — with the Military Reform 2020 plan pledging to invest roughly $620 billion between 2005 and 2020. The Roh government supported the plan by enacting the National Defense Reform Act of 2006, and increased defense expenditures by 8.7 percent annually for the period 2003-2007, compared with the previous record annual increase of 4.4 percent for the period 1998-2002. South Korea ranked 11th out of the 15 biggest spenders for the last five years, with defense expenditure reaching 2.7 percent of GDP in 2007, according to the “2009 SIPRI Yearbook.”

Costs for improvements of defense capability also skyrocketed from 24.1 percent of the 2002 defense budget (in the last year of the previous government) to 27.3 percent of the 2007 defense budget (the last year of the Roh government). The Military Reform 2020 plan also called for spending approximately $45 billion between 2006 and 2010 for “pure defense capability improvement” (maintenance and replacement cost excluded). In 2007, approximately $10 billion was allocated to “defense capability improvement,” or 30 percent of the entire defense budget.

In order to establish a truly self-reliant defense capability, the Roh government stepped up domestic defense industry infrastructure by enacting the “Defense Business Act of 2006,” initiated by the presidential office. At present, between 65 percent and 70 percent of funds allocated to defense capability improvement still go to foreign procurement. The gap between the import and export of defense production has remained noticeable: South Korea has been the fourth- or fifth-biggest importer, but only the 17th-biggest supplier of major conventional weapons between 2003 and 2007 (again from the 2009 SIPRI Yearbook). The Defense Business Act encourages active sales of domestic defense products to the outside market, but in 2007 South Korean arms exports reached $350 million for the first time.

The Lee government’s ‘strategic alliance’ proposal and potential sources of new friction, 2008-present

The government of Lee Myung-bak took office with the view that the ROK-U.S. alliance was in worse shape as a result of the Roh-Bush configuration, and proposed to the Bush administration during the latter’s final year in office to upgrade the relationship to a strategic alliance. In April 2008, Lee became the first South Korean president to visit Camp David, a symbol of renewed political amity resulting from the lifting of the ban on U.S. beef imports to the Korean market.

The Lee government’s strong commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance, and acknowledgment of its value, has been well-received in Washington, but several sources of potential friction have arisen in the last two years. The problem arises not from the political tone, which has improved, but from the substantive views of a conservative South Korean government that expects the U.S. to play a constant role in defending Korean security. The Lee government would also like to limit increases in military expenditures from the levels pursued by the Roh government (8.7 percent annual growth), and believes that the transfer of wartime OPCON in April 2012 must be postponed, since OPCON is the most reliable guarantee that the U.S. would augment its manpower assistance in the event of a North Korean invasion. On numerous occasions, President Lee has considered raising this rescheduling issue with President Obama, but has so far held off, in light of the desire expressed by the Obama administration not to alter the agreement.

The potential rescheduling of the OPCON transfer is driven by Lee’s aversion to devoting budgetary priority to military expenditures. But when, soon after coming to power, the Lee government signaled cuts in defense spending, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did not hide his frustration with the new government’s attempt to “free-ride” on U.S. security guarantees. In autumn 2009, further controversy erupted when President Lee adopted a 3.8 percent increase in the defense budget for fiscal year 2009, over the leaked protests of South Korea’s Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee, who had requested a 7.8 percent increase (already 2.1 percent less than the original plan).

The two critical tripwires for the OPCON transfer schedule are the relocations of USFK’s Yongsan headquarters and the Second Infantry Division to the Pyongtaek Hub Base, currently under construction below the Han River line. When the Lee government proposed to complete the Pyungtaek Military base by 2016 — or four years later than originally planned — U.S. Defense Secretary Roberts Gates insisted on sitting in on the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), held in Washington in October 2008, to weigh in on the matter.

In an effort to ease the resulting strain on the relationship, the South Korean National Assembly recently approved the Defense Ministry’s request to send about 320 troops to Afghanistan, with the mission to protect members of South Korea’s Provincial Reconstruction Team operating in the country. It is not certain whether this degree of involvement in the U.S. war effort will be sufficient to absorb the potential shocks should bilateral consultations over flexibility in USFK’s out-of-theater deployment result in further reduction of USFK’s 28,000 troops.


In issues not pertaining to security, the Lee government is adhering to and expanding previous policy stances. Since the 1997 foreign currency crisis, the Korean economy has been transformed from a labor-intensive, export-oriented economy to a knowledge-based one. Approximately 30 percent of all exports are IT-related products, and the country’s economic structure has more generally been put on a more advanced footing. These growing economic capabilities have led to a broadening of foreign policy objectives, and South Korea’s role in the international community has been enhanced accordingly.

Currently the Lee government is pushing for strengthening energy cooperation, diversifying free trade agreements, and expanding Korea’s international cooperation under the catchphrase of “Global Korea.” The country’s poor endowment of natural resources has been a source of vulnerability not just to the Korean economy, but to its security as well. Cooperation with Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has expanded sources of supplies. Nuclear energy procurement and uranium exploration cooperation with foreign countries is also being reinforced to further develop the nuclear power plant industry, on which South Korea relies for 40 percent of its energy consumption. Economic cooperation with the UAE, initiated in 2006, recently culminated in a South Korean-led consortium winning the $20 billion contract to build the Gulf nation’s first nuclear energy plants. There is also speculation that similar deals will be struck with Turkey and Vietnam. In all of these areas, the Lee government is building on the previous administration’s strategy to develop South Korea into an advanced trading country.

The core of this development strategy involves concluding FTAs with about 40 countries. When the Lee government took office, FTAs with Chile, Singapore and other ASEAN countries had already been approved, and only the ratification of the U.S. FTA was left to be finalized. The Lee government is now poised to finalize FTA negotiations with the EU and continue the joint study of government and private sector cooperation with China and Japan, to widen the spectrum of cooperation partners.

South Korea’s growing national capabilities have resulted in a corresponding emphasis on the country’s contribution to the global community. Having accomplished economic expansion and democratic development almost concurrently, South Korea is now seeking to move beyond the geopolitical constraints of its security concerns, and examining active paths to a more prominent global presence. It is an effort that, if continued, should yield positive results.

Sun-Won Park is an expert in international relations and national security, particularly U.S.-South Korea relations. He has served in the government of the Republic of Korea as senior director for national security strategy and planning, and also as secretary to the president for national security strategy. He is currently the visiting fellow for northeast asia energy and security at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.