Seoul wants to make some defense reforms, but we’re not there yet

Seoul wants to make some defense reforms, but we’re not there yet
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On Monday, the Washington Post reported that satellite imagery and intelligence suggest North Korea is building at least one, and possibly two, liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the same factory that produced the Hwasong-15, Pyongyang’s first ICBM capable of hitting the continental United States. This report flies in the face of satellite images just last week showing North Korea dismantling its Sohae Satellite Launching Station — ostensibly a gesture honoring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) promise made to the United States at the Singapore summit.

As many analysts pointed out, the dismantling was largely a symbolic act;  North Korea not only has demonstrated capabilities to launch liquid-fueled ICBMs, it also can easily rebuild the test stand within months.

Also last week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoRNC's McDaniel launches podcast highlighting Republicans outside of Washington Pompeo launches political group ahead of possible White House bid Sunday shows - Biden foreign policy in focus MORE, during his testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that the Kim regime was still producing fissile material for nuclear bombs.


Against the backdrop of nukes and missiles, Seoul and Pyongyang on Tuesday held general-grade military talks at the Peace House in Panmunjom to discuss measures to reduce military tensions and “practically eliminate the danger of war.” Among the topics discussed were the disarmament of the Joint Security Area, withdrawing guard posts from the demilitarized zone and — as alluded to by North Korea’s delegation lead Lt. Gen. Ahn Ik-san — a declaration to mark the end of the Korean War.

Ahn’s choice of words seemed to be deliberate. Referencing a South Korean media report, he said the North is trying to “shake up” the United States and South Korea to push for a peace declaration. This, he said, is a possibility. In fact, we are hearing rumors that the two Koreas, China and the United States may discuss formalizing the end of the Korean War at the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (held also in Singapore) later this week.

We know that North Korea has not shown any verifiable and credible indication that it is taking steps to fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In fact, recent developments indicate that the regime continues to develop and advance its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Admittedly, we are no longer on the brink of war with Pyongyang, thanks in part to the summitry and dialogue since this spring. But the DPRK’s weapons program remains intact and still looms as a threat to the region’s security.

Yet, Seoul’s Defense Ministry recently announced measures to reform the military in light of changing demographics and constraints in policy formulation. The new measures, according to the Ministry, will “buttress a peaceful and strong Republic of Korea in the security situation of a transitional period.” Notably, the government plans to cut 118,000 ground troops, shorten the mandatory military service from 21 to 18 months by 2022, and replace the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command with a South Korean leadership once wartime operational command is transferred from Washington to Seoul.

If completed, the troop reduction will bring South Korea’s military to its level in the 1970s, when the country pushed for military modernization following the withdrawal of its troops from the Vietnam War. When the cutbacks are fully implemented, South Korea’s active combat troop numbers will come down to about 500,000 — less than half of North Korea’s 1.28 million. The Defense Ministry, for its part, plans to make up the deficit in troop size through the reinforcement of drone bots, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, and other state-of-the-art equipment.

A more efficiently-run military, in tune with the contemporary societal and security landscape, has its merits. Economically, defense streamlining could reduce unnecessary costs and expenditures. Additionally, security no longer is confined to physical borders and armed confrontation — cyber warfare is a slippery, yet very potent, threat that can incapacitate a country’s economic and technological operability. So South Korea’s structural, institutional and functional reassessment of its military is not completely unwarranted.

But under the current atmospherics — (still) a nuclear North Korea, uncertain trajectory of inter-Korean relations, not to mention the occasional air and sea breaches by Chinese military jets and warships — the South Korean Defense Ministry’s reform proposal appears precipitated, potentially leaving a gaping hole in Seoul’s security and military readiness to preempt and respond to military incidents. Tensions may have abated, but cohabiting the peninsula with a nuclear-armed North Korea remains a reality for Seoul. Troop reduction, a shortened conscription period, and a more autonomous South Korean military are years too early, in light of the security atmospherics on the peninsula.

Thankfully, last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a defense authorization bill restricting the drawdown of U.S. troop in South Korea — a non-negotiable as it relates to North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Under this bill, Congress prohibits the use of funds to reduce the U.S. troop size from the current 28,500 to below 22,000 without certification from the secretary of Defense that the reduction is in the national security interest of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia.

In case we needed another reminder, Monday’s announcement of the DPRK’s missile activity tells us yet again that the security threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons is alive and here to stay. Until the day that Pyongyang no longer poses an existential threat to the interests of South Korea and the Northeast Asia region, we — the United States, South Korea and our regional allies — really shouldn’t make a rash decision about troop reductions that could negatively affect our security.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.