President Moon Jae-in speaks with officials from the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs during a meeting to discuss key military policies on Aug. 28. (Blue House Press Pool)
During his first discussion about key policies at the Defense Ministry on Aug. 28, South Korean President Moon Jae-in took steps to restore discipline by reproaching the military for its lack of confidence. Moon’s remarks are thought to reflect his push for the full implementation of a plan known as “National Defense Reform 2.0.”
Given that South Korea’s economy is 45 times larger than North Korea’s, Moon remarked, “South Korea’s military strength ought to overwhelm North Korea in terms of the absolute budget amount, but do we actually have that kind of confidence?”
“Our military always acts as if it’s falling behind [North Korea], so how are we supposed to trust the military?” Moon said. The mood at the meeting contrasted with the confidence he showed when he said, “I trust the military” during a visit to the Defense Ministry shortly after his inauguration in May.
Moon’s remarks bring to mind former President Roh Moo-hyun’s frustration 10 years ago with military leaders who opposed South Korea taking back wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States. Roh denounced those leaders as “good-for-nothing generals” and said “they need to be willing to defend the country themselves” and “they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Moon’s tongue-lashing during the meeting seems to be largely in line with Roh’s view of the problems facing the military. “It’s a shame that we apparently have to rely on the South Korea-US combined forces because our troops can’t handle the North Korean military on their own despite our massive military spending,” Moon said, which appears to be a clarion call for the South Korean military to “stand on its own.”
“Moon was speaking for the general public when he asked why our military still lacks firm confidence when our economy has been stronger [than North Korea’s] since the 1970s and our military expenditures have topped theirs for decades now. The point is that he wants the military to be more proactive about defense reform,” said a senior official at the Blue House.
The two main solutions that Moon offered for these problems are building a stronger military and speeding up the OPCON handover. In May, Moon’s Governance Planning Advisory Committee announced a plan to boost the yearly rate of increase in defense spending from the 3-4% maintained by past governments to 7-8%. As for the handover of OPCON, which is currently held by the US military, Moon and US President Donald Trump agreed during their summit at the end of June to accelerate this process, and “moving toward an early handover” was explicitly included in the governance planning advisory committee’s governing agenda.
On Aug. 28, the Defense Ministry unveiled a “doctrine for prosecuting an aggressive response plan led by the ROK Armed Forces in case North Korea stages a provocation.” As a specific means of implementing this, the Ministry gave a briefing about accelerating work on three major military projects, namely the Kill Chain, the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system and the Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) system. This briefing appeared to be a response to Moon’s criticism.
“While it’s true that there has been a small delay in setting up these three systems, we’ll work to have them operational by the early 2020s,” said Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk during a briefing to the press that took place after the meeting.
By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer, and Kim Kyu-nam and Jung Yu-gyung, staff reporters
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