[Column] Why do progressives spend more on defense than conservatives?

Posted on : 2020-08-16 08:25 KST Modified on : 2020-08-16 08:25 KST
Defense spending under Moon has increased at a higher rate than under Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye
Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepts rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on Aug. 4. (AP/Yonhap News)
Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepts rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on Aug. 4. (AP/Yonhap News)

A light aircraft carrier and a “Korean Iron Dome” to intercept long-range North Korean artillery -- these were two of the key projects in an intermediate-term national defense plan announced by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Aug. 10. It called for a total of 300 trillion won (US$253.5 billion) to be spent on defense, including 100 trillion won (US$84.5 billion) in defense capability improvements over the next five years.

Amid the “new Cold War” between the US and China and as Japan moves to become a major military power, few would dispute that South Korea should also be beefing up its autonomous defense capabilities. But as something that involves massive amounts of taxpayer money, this increase in armaments needs to be clearly tied to practical results, and the special circumstances surrounding inter-Korean relations also need to be taken into account. There is a very real risk of increased military spending coming into conflict with the key aims of peace and disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.

Questions of how effective Israeli-developed Iron Dome is against to N. Korea’s long-range artillery

First developed in Israel, the “Iron Dome” is an interception system that fends off the rockets and shells lobbed intermittently by militia-level forces like Hezbollah. Many experts are skeptical of how effective it would be actually at fighting off hundreds of shells per minute coming from North Korea’s long-range artillery positioned near the Armistice Line. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- nicknamed “Star Wars” -- was a plan announced by then US President Ronald Reagan in 1983 for the interception of Soviet nuclear missiles outside the atmosphere; it was described as the “most expensive and most unrealistic military plan in human history.” There are also questions about whether this sort of Iron Dome to defend Seoul will be necessary at all amid the push to relocate the capital to Sejong.

What’s more important here is that the presentation of the “Iron Dome” as a key plan signals a subtle shift in the current administration’s strategic objectives. In “Plan B” for the “National Defense Reform 2.0” program reported to the Blue House by the MND in December 2018, the strategic aim was revised from “responding to North Korean threats” to “responding to omnidirectional long-distance threats.” Yet the latest intermediate-term defense plan once again names “responding to short-range threats from North Korea” as a major goal.

To be sure, the state of inter-Korean relations is different now from how it was in 2018. But if the current chill in inter-Korean relations is enough to warrant allocating a massive defense budget to build the Iron Dome, it raises questions about whether the administration plans to shuffle inter-Korean disarmament down on its list of priorities.

An intermediate-term defense plan is just that -- a plan -- and it does not necessarily lead to spending right away. But the MND is likely to use its presidentially approved plan to pressure the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MOEF) to get funding, and with the presidential election coming up in 2022, neither the ruling party nor the opposition is in a position to be stingy about defense spending. We saw a symbolic illustration of this during the 2017 election debates when then candidate Moon Jae-in got into an exchange with fellow candidate Yoo Seong-min about which of them had been more proactive about increasing defense expenditures. When Yoo insisted that he had “spent more on defense than anyone when I was chairman of the National Assembly National Defense Committee,” Moon countered that the “rate of increase in defense spending was greater under the Roh Moo-hyun administration than under either the Lee Myung-bak or the Park Geun-hye administration.”

Progressives always trying to prove they’re not “weak” on security

Indeed, defense spending has increased more under progressive administrations than under conservative ones. During the Roh presidency, defense spending rose by an average annual rate of 8.9%; the respective rates during the Lee and Park presidencies were 6.1% and 4.1%. Over the three years of the Moon administration, the rate of increase in defense spending has been around 7.5% -- also higher than under the Lee or Park administrations.

This approach seemed to be rooted in traumas over the years -- the idea that responding to attacks from conservatives who call progressives “weak on security” is the only way to win elections. Even as the times have changed, progressive administrations are still hampered by the obsessive idea that conservatives must possess the advantage when it comes to security. This is why former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, Chief of Staff Noh Young-min, and Cho Jeong-sik, Democratic Party policy committee chair, have also spoken with pride about how “defense spending has risen under the Moon administration.” It’s through these cracks that we get projects that run counter to strategic goals and are of uncertain effectiveness.

US’ delay of OPCON transfer likely related to its cold war with China

The transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), which was supposed to be completed during the Moon administration, now appears likely to be postponed again. The US has been dragging its feet, citing the need to “examine the conditions” for the transfer. Fifteen years have passed now since the OPCON transfer issue was officially raised by the Roh administration. At the time, the US praised the South Korean military’s capabilities and indicated that it would transfer OPCON by 2009. It’s difficult to fathom them waiting until now to announce plans for a “thorough examination.” The prevailing analysis is that its reasons have to do with their new Cold War with China.

In any case, I have the sense that the presentation of the Iron Dome as a key defense plan is not unrelated to the OPCON issue. Possessing OPCON signals a strong sense of mission -- the idea of determining our own defense objectives and allocating resources to suit them. When we become accustomed to a passive system, it becomes difficult to make creative judgments about which weapons systems are suited to the intermediate- and long-term future of the South Korean military. That may explain why we’re seeing things like the Iron Dome -- projects that are questionable in both strategic objective and efficiency -- headlining our defense plans.

The spring after next will bring another presidential election. Will we get to see a presidential candidate who confidently proclaims plans to cut defense spending that is not obviously effective and use the savings to improve the public’s healthcare and social services?

By Park Chan-su, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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