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Why South Korea’s Liberals Are Defense Hawks

Seoul’s new missile technologies have both Pyongyang and Beijing in mind.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
South Korean marines participate in an exercise on the 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Pohang, South Korea, on Oct. 1.
South Korean marines participate in an exercise on the 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Pohang, South Korea, on Oct. 1. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

If it were happening in the other Korea, the manic pace of weapons development in South Korea would have caused global alarm. On Sept. 15, just hours after North Korea’s test of two short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea unveiled at least five different missile technologies: a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a bunker-busting ballistic missile, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, a long-range air-to-surface missile, and a solid-fuel engine for space rockets. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was in attendance for these tests, immediately after Moon welcomed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was visiting Seoul.

This round of testing put South Korea in a small elite group when it comes to missile technology. South Korea’s SLBM was fired by the ROKS Dosan Ahn Changho, a domestically produced attack submarine that became the first air independent power (AIP) submarine to fire an underwater ballistic missile. Because AIP submarines are virtually silent, the ability to fire an SLBM out of an AIP submarine is considered a “game changer.” South Korea is just the eighth country in the world to develop an SLBM; the other seven—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, India, China, and North Korea—all have nuclear weapons. It’s not unimaginable that South Korea could follow suit.

It shouldn’t be surprising that all this is happening during a liberal South Korean presidency. Peace through strength and autonomous self-defense have been consistent themes in South Korean liberals’ defense policy, despite the caricatures painted by conservatives. Yet in foreign-policy circles outside South Korea, confusion persists as to why a supposedly dovish Moon is engaged in a furious arms race—in part because right-wing narratives crafted in Seoul are often picked up in Washington.

If it were happening in the other Korea, the manic pace of weapons development in South Korea would have caused global alarm. On Sept. 15, just hours after North Korea’s test of two short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea unveiled at least five different missile technologies: a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a bunker-busting ballistic missile, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, a long-range air-to-surface missile, and a solid-fuel engine for space rockets. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was in attendance for these tests, immediately after Moon welcomed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was visiting Seoul.

This round of testing put South Korea in a small elite group when it comes to missile technology. South Korea’s SLBM was fired by the ROKS Dosan Ahn Changho, a domestically produced attack submarine that became the first air independent power (AIP) submarine to fire an underwater ballistic missile. Because AIP submarines are virtually silent, the ability to fire an SLBM out of an AIP submarine is considered a “game changer.” South Korea is just the eighth country in the world to develop an SLBM; the other seven—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, India, China, and North Korea—all have nuclear weapons. It’s not unimaginable that South Korea could follow suit.

It shouldn’t be surprising that all this is happening during a liberal South Korean presidency. Peace through strength and autonomous self-defense have been consistent themes in South Korean liberals’ defense policy, despite the caricatures painted by conservatives. Yet in foreign-policy circles outside South Korea, confusion persists as to why a supposedly dovish Moon is engaged in a furious arms race—in part because right-wing narratives crafted in Seoul are often picked up in Washington.

An important strain in South Korea’s liberal politics is an emphasis on national autonomy. The South Korean left understands the late 19th and 20th centuries as a period of deep humiliation, as the country underwent a series of subjugations—first by imperial Japan’s colonial rule and then by the division overseen by the United States and Soviet Union. To avoid repeating that fate, they argue, Koreans must strive for self-determination. An important component of that self-determination is jaju gukbang, i.e., autonomous national defense.

In addition, South Korean liberals have had political reasons to take a strong tone on national defense, in order to dispel the public image that they were soft on North Korea. Even as South Korean liberal administrations sought dialogue with North Korea, they always backstopped that dialogue with a show of force that discouraged Pyongyang from attempting a destabilizing military venture.

Former President Kim Dae-jung, for example, is remembered for his Sunshine Policy, in which South Korea pursued reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea. But often forgotten is the fact that among the three principles of inter-Korean relations that Kim presented in his 1998 inauguration speech—which formed the foundation of the Sunshine Policy—the first principle was “zero tolerance of North Korean military provocation.” In June 1999, the South Korean navy scored a decisive victory by sinking an invading North Korean torpedo boat and severely damaging three patrol boats in the disputed waters off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, even as the Kim Dae-jung administration was continuing its attempt at dialogue with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il.

Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency from 2003 to 2008, which followed Kim Dae-jung’s, was a pivotal moment in the South Korean military’s modernization. The firebrand liberal’s administration was “the only time Seoul came close to truly pursuing autonomy” in international affairs, according to Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, as Roh envisioned South Korea as serving as a “balancer” of Northeast Asia. Jokingly nicknamed “the militarist of hopes and dreams” by his admiring supporters, Roh was obsessed with building autonomous defense capacity.

The Roh administration’s military modernization plan introduced in 2005, titled Defense Reform Plan 2020, serves as the blueprint for the South Korean military to this day. During Roh’s presidency, South Korea became the world’s fifth operator of the Aegis Combat System with its Sejong the Great-class destroyer and earnestly began producing domestic jet fighters and attack submarines—whose scale models decorated Roh’s office desk. South Korea’s national defense budget increased by an average of 8.9 percent annually in the five years of Roh administration, a growth rate that has been unmatched since.

After nine years of conservative administrations under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, Moon picked up in 2017 where Roh left off. Criticizing the conservative administrations’ commitment to national defense, Moon has averaged 6.5 percent average growth in the defense budget in his nearly five years as president, outpacing his predecessor’s 4.2 percent. Under purchasing power parity terms, South Korea’s defense budget surpassed that of Japan (which has 2.5 times the population of South Korea) in 2018, and it is expected to surpass in nominal dollars in 2023. The Moon administration’s drive to increase defense spending was such that Kim Jung-sup, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former official at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, said: “The Blue House wanted to spend more than what the Defense Ministry or the Joint Chiefs could realistically procure.”

Moon lobbied the United States to lift the missile guidelines that limited the range of South Korea’s missiles and convinced the Biden administration to abolish the guidelines following a summit meeting this May. Only four months later, in September, South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development announced that it had successfully tested a short-range-in-name-only ballistic missile with a massive 6-ton warhead. Reacting to the test, Ankit Panda, a weapons expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the situation as “reaching arms-racing levels that shouldn’t be possible.” In addition, South Korea under the Moon administration purchased a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets and midair refueling aircraft and began building its own supersonic fighter jets and a light aircraft carrier. The 2021 edition of the Global Firepower index ranks South Korea as sixth in the world in conventional military strength, ahead of all of Europe.

Within South Korea, this history is well established. Yet in foreign-policy circles outside South Korea, the fact that a supposedly dovish liberal such as Moon was engaged in a mad dash for an arms race has caused confusion for some. One analyst, for example, conjectured that Moon’s weapons development hinted that the South Korean left might be reconsidering unification with North Korea. Another offered that the military buildup was in order to take back the wartime operational control (OPCON), which currently belongs to the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command. But these analyses do not account for the consistent policy direction of South Korea’s liberal administrations. As discussed above, South Korea’s liberal presidents have always pursued a dual-track policy of inter-Korean dialogue and military enhancement, and the OPCON transfer issue has been tangential to South Korea’s weapons program.

The inability to recognize the history and significance of South Korea’s military buildup misses a key dynamic in inter-Korean relations. North Korea has repeatedly made it known that it feels threatened by South Korea’s conventional capabilities. Pyongyang bitterly complained of “double standards” after South Korea’s latest missile tests and allegedly paid spies within South Korea to foment a protest against importing F-35 jets. Although sharper analysts such as Ian Bowers and Henrik Hiim recognized the importance of South Korea’s military program and the complication it introduces in the effort to denuclearize North Korea, in general, the missiles program in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula has been the only one generating international headlines.

This lacuna is problematic because the implications of South Korea’s military program go beyond the Korean Peninsula. One of them is nuclear proliferation. Seoul is at least thinking about nuclear armament: South Korea is the only country with an SLBM without a nuclear weapon, and nearly 70 percent of the public is in support of acquiring nukes. South Korea has secretly enriched uranium several times, and in 2003, the Roh administration quietly pursued a plan to construct a nuclear submarine before abandoning the plan due to heightened international attention on South Korea’s uranium enrichment activities. Since his inauguration in 2017, Moon has asked the U.S. government to provide technical support and fissile material for nuclear submarines. With Australia set to receive the nuclear submarine technology through the new AUKUS deal, the next South Korean administration is likely to push for weaponized nuclear technology in some form or another.

The upcoming presidential election in South Korea makes an objective assessment of Seoul’s military program even more urgent. Plainly, South Korea’s blue-water navy plan is not directed at North Korea but at power projection in the South China Sea, a critical shipping lane for petroleum from the Middle East to East Asia that China may attempt to blockade in a potential embargo against South Korea and Japan. The conservative opposition in South Korea has objected to the navy’s light aircraft carrier plan, with Assembly Member Shin Won-sik claiming: “If we introduce the carrier, all it will do is assist the U.S. Pacific Fleet.” Although the navy stressed the need to respond to China’s increasing number of aircraft carriers, Shin dismissed such concerns: “China’s carriers are not aimed at us; they are for the United States.”

Yet many articles in prominent English-language outlets continue to promote the idea that a potential conservative administration in South Korea will be tougher on China, based on the reflexive assumption that conservatives will be stronger on national defense. But such assumption is ahistorical. After all, it was only six years ago, in 2015, that conservative President Park Geun-hye was the only leader of a major democracy to attend China’s World War II victory parade, applauding the People’s Liberation Army next to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. In the strategic competition between the United States and China, South Korea is among the most critical players. An evidence-based assessment of South Korea’s defense policy is more necessary today than ever.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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