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Sticker Shock: A Post-USFK South Korea Must Do Less for More

A few days ago, the Marmot linked this RAND report on South Korea’s Defense Reform Plan (DRP). The report starts with some alarming disclaimers: it could not access much of the ROK MND’s classified information on strength levels or weapons systems, and the author has no experience (!) analyzing defense budget requests. Nonetheless, the author was able to pull together enough knowable facts to convince me that the DRP will come unglued. How fast? Without a national emergency, I give it five years; with one, I give it five hours. Although I encourage you to read the whole thing, here’s my executive summary:

– South Korea is shrinking its force significantly. At the same time, it means to rely on fewer conscripts. It means to do all this without the USFK. Even with the reductions, it’s going to hit a demographic wall in a few years due to its birthrate, one of the lowest in the industrialized world (more).

– To an extent, the force reduction is illusory, too. Much of it comes from reducing the Army from 47 divisions to 24, mainly at the expense of those assigned to protect the ROK itself in case of war. How? In large part, by transferring the coastal defense function to the police, who have to compete with the Army for that same shrinking pool of manpower.

– All of this is going to cost more — about 10 % more each year through 2010, and then a modest increase of just under 9% through 2015 — because (as I often said while assigned to the USFK) we brought most of the expensive gear to the fight: aviation, logistics, command/control, radar systems, and generally the preponderance of the high-end aircraft, missiles, and armor. Most of the ROK stuff uses Vietnam-era technology and will need to be replaced in the next 10 years (most of the USFK’s ground combat power will be gone long before then). Now — do you really think the National Assembly is going to approve all of those steep, successive budget increases? I suggest that the MND read more about Taiwan’s situation. Can Korea really develop new missiles, a new attack aircraft, and its KHX helicopter with its paltry research budget? Don’t bet on it.

– The plan assumes GDP growth of 7.1% (!!), the kind of insanely unrealistic projection you expect from the North Koreans. Assuming that natural economic cycles cease, and that there are no more recessions, GDP growth projections are closer to 4%.

– Koreans seem not to realize that retaking wartime command, while an understandable goal, means the effective end of the USFK’s ground component. See footnote 19:

The U.S. military is generally unwilling to subordinate its forces to a foreign commander in wartime. As a result, the current CFC has a U.S. commander, just as does the current NATO Supreme Allied Command, Europe. But President Roh is insisting that a ROK officer command all ROK forces in wartime. Since such an officer would also command U.S. forces if the CFC framework were retained, this change would require terminating CFC. U.S. forces could still potentially remain in Korea, though the number would probably be significantly reduced, and U.S. forces would likely transition to a supporting role to the ROK military. Alliance planning would be replaced by separate ROK and U.S. planning.

– There’s something fundamentally wrong with a defense plan for Korea that plans to win with smaller numbers and more technology. Fine, if you’re going to fight the Yom Kippur War or Desert Storm, or defend the Taiwan Strait. NOT so fine if the threat you’re facing includes Special Forces, sleeper agents, guerrillas, a fifth column, WMD attacks, roads clogged with refugees mingled with all of the above…. No realistic projection for conflict in Korea will NOT be infantry-intensive. Finally, take this fact in: in the event of a North Korean collapse, RAND estimates that it will take 440,000 troops to restore order if the regime collapses in the North. Even at today’s higher strength, the South may not have the forces to do that.

– Ditto the Navy: it’s investing in big ships like submarines and cruisers, at the expense of coast patrol craft. Cruisers have obvious uses in missile defense, and both have uses for maintaining naval superiority, but I’d be much less worried about North Korea’s decreptic Russian cast-off Navy than its special forces coming in on small rubber boats. That is, unless you’re basing your national defense strategy on a projected war over Tokdo. In which case, Korea needs to factor in the massive military buildup that’s on the way, courtesy of Kim Jong Il, with the grateful cooperation of president-to-be Shinzo Abe.

– Unless the ROK intends to research, design, test, crew, and deploy every major military system it needs all by itself, its defense plan simply won’t going to work without some strong alliances. Japan and the United States would be logical choices, but domestic politics are destroying both of those options. And you have to ignore a lot of very bad historical precedent to invite Chinese troops into Korea.

Again, I think independent defense ought to be Korea’s goal, but Korea needs a much better plan for managing it, one that takes its defense realities into account. Unfortunately, the politics of emotion and the gratuitous alienation of Japan and the United States over “pride” issues have made it difficult to gain U.S. cooperation in any gradual USFK force reductions or defense assistance — the kind that permits Israel’s robust independent defense — that might have made that process feasible. Nor can Korea necessarily count on the help of U.S. forces over the horizon. It’s a bleak picture for South Korea, and in hindsight, the reasons it brought itself to this state of affairs seem hard to explain.


  1. I was assigned to 8th army korea for eight years. 2ID for another year. That year was 2002, the election year. Current President was elected on the, \”Americans kill our little girls, I will get the Americans out of korea Ticket\”. Korea changed for the worse in that year and it was the beginning of the end for good relations with the U.S. No more subway rides for us in the 2id. Anyway, no politician am I. Just a soldier that really enjoyed Korea prior to the election of 02. The sunshine policy was no help. After 3 or is it 4 years of that, I think that even President Row would admit, in private—after a bottle or two of soju—the truth of this. In public never. In 2002=2004 I saw a different korea than the seven years before. I saw a VERY child-like group of people. They can be led left or right as easily as the cow herds here in the states. They live for drama, as a nation, much the same as lonely housewives. The Americans are nothing more than a thing or idea to cast hate upon, from my last experiances. This from a Soldier that would ride the subways and just get off somewhere and walk around on weekends. I was surprized once when the KNP traffic cop SALUTED me as I crossed. I don\’t think that would happen today. I am sorry to say this but, We need to leave this ungrateful country. Leave her to her fate with her northern brother. Korea is like a poor, dirty little orphan who is adopted by a rich couple and now is in rebelion.


  2. To Dan: In contrast to your negative opinion, I’ve met many former USFK soldiers who cherish the time spent in Korea. They learned to appreciate the differences between Korean and American cultures, and some of them would prefer to live in Korea. Some have actually applied for civilian jobs in Korea, so they can go back there.

    Also, Korea treats GIs much better than some other countries, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. The Phillipines closed a US base because of civilian complaints. Recently, a central Asian country reversed a decision to allow a US base. Even Japan refuses to allow a US base on the main island, and many people at Okinawa want the base to close.

    In addition, US military leaders probably want to keep the USFK, because Korea’s location has geostrategic importance. The Korean peninsula borders the two superpowers of China and Russia.

    In case the Alliance does end, SK should prepare for that by building good relations with its neighbors, especially China, NK, and Russia. That’s what SK has been doing in recent decades. Peace with the neigboring countries is the best defense.


  3. Mi-Hwa, you must have missed the part where I stated being in Korea for EIGHT YEARS down south and ONE YEAR with 2id in Ujong-bu. I loved being in korea 88-1992. I REQUESTED to stay the extra THREE years. I also REQUESTED to return and stay from 1995-1997! I spoke of what Korea turned into in 2002, under President Row. Read the entire post please. And the following is just for you—I traveled much during the total of NINE YEARS I spent in Korea. I told of the friendships i had with Koreans to my soldiers in the states when they got orders to Korea. I miss THAT Korea often. But the Korea I live in, in 2002-2004 was not the same country. It changed and not for the better. I would love to show you pictures of the Korea i once knew. I have friends that work in Korea. I know. I also know how much it changed under President Row.


  4. I note that you forgot one of Korea’s neighbors, with whom good relations might seem to matter….

    As for the experiences that U.S. soldiers have in Korea, I think they depend on the individual and the timing of his/her tour, and even then, no single word can really encapsulate one’s impression of a country. My best effort would have to be hyphenated: “love-hate.” The aspects I love are those I come home to every day, and I married a woman whom I believe to embody what is best about Koreans and their culture (intelligence, beauty, loyalty, ferocious determination), and lacks what I consider some of its limitations (its tendency toward dishonesty, and what she calls its absence of “noblesse oblige).

    I don’t think Dan is saying that all of his experiences in Korea were bad ones, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that what soldiers are coming home and telling their friends and family is doing Korea’s long-term interests any good here.

    Fact is, Dan’s experiences are consistent with what I’ve heard of those who arrived just after I left. Things turned much uglier. Married soldiers who tended to stay home anyway, or who returned with the Korean wives they’d married in previous tours, tended to view Koreans like those they knew from joint staff assignments, social events, well-worn shopping districts, or the Chosun Gift Shop racket. Younger soldiers who didn’t learn much Korean and who found themselves mostly unwelcome except for in the “camp follower” culture tended to see all Koreans as juicy girls and slickie boys.

    I’ve experienced all of those aspects of Korea and many more, and I think both impressions are misleading. Unlike 97% of American soldiers, I’ve sat cross-legged on the floors of Korean homes as both guest and family member and participated to a degree in their dinner talk. I’ve had hundreds of conversations about how Koreans view Americans on trains, buses, coffee shops, and some really good ones after a few shots of soju. I’ve also pored over polling data that tend to ask stilted questions of samples that seem too small or too skewed, but which nonetheless confirm a few gross generalizations: Koreans want American protection, tend to like American culture, and like or want to form friendships with certain Americans of higher social status. They also tend to hate America as a political being, see the world in terms of ethnic tribalism and social status, and despise American soldiers, particularly those who are uneducated, of low rank, or non-white.

    The inverse is also true, by the way. I think most Americans with at least an average breadth of experience with Koreans will tell you that on a personal level, they like most Koreans they know (we’ll be less complimentary of those we interact with on the subway or the street). But as a political entity, Americans have about had it with South Korea.


  5. Dan, Well said. It’s good to hear it from soldier’s POV and your obersvations are sadly right on the dot.

    When I was in elementary school in late 60’s to early 70’s, we were taught to be thankful to USFK for the life and freedome we enjoyed. US government provided corn/wheat bread for the poor malnourished children as there were kids facing hunger everyday and could not bring lunch to school. Sadly, 386 gen professional protester leftist commie sympathizers did not experience hunger and poverty which was common in Korea until mid 70’s and how much US aid resulted in ROK where it is today.

    I grew up in Bupyong, old US Army town, and my dad worked for US Army 121st Hospital after leaving Katusa.


  6. OK, let’s dissect the wrong points from Mihwa, a proud PIG Uri party member residing in USA, a country she seems to despise.

    1. “Also, Korea treats GIs much better than some other countries, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.”
    What’s your basis for this? Examples? Dan and other USFK old timers will tell you it changed for LOT WORSE ever since your dear leader NO and his leftis commie sympathizing cronies came to power.

    2. “The Phillipines closed a US base because of civilian complaints.”
    Gee the Philippines has been reeling big time economically from US armed forces withdrawal for over a decade! Be careful what you wish for! US leaving Subic and other bases was strategic move and not due to angry Filipinos who are really the unemployed ones now and not VIOLENT STONE THROWING BAMBOO SPEAR ARMED leftist commies.

    3. “Even Japan refuses to allow a US base on the main island, and many people at Okinawa want the base to close. ”
    WTF? US bases are ALL OVER Honshu, the main island! Air Force, Marine and huge Sasebo base which is USN 7th fleet HQ. As for Okinawa, it has been sore point for years as US Marine and Air Force do occupy big chunk of the island. But only few liberal crazed Okinawans want US to close all bases as you state.

    PS – Say how do ya like your Mr NO the Sunshine’s popularity in ROK? How about your party? Was it something like 10% approval and LOST just about every election in last 2 years by landslide?


  7. Rand is right on the dot. ROK depends on USFK for much of the ELINT (electronic intelligence). ROK tried but had many embarassing moments like non-working ELINT jets bought thru ex-beauty queen and Ktown night club (used to be the best disco) owner turned arms dealer CON who in her 40’s who prosituted herself to gain business from generals (was kind a how many slept with her).

    ROK spending money of mini aircraft carrier (why?) and biger destroyers makes no sense while the FAC Kilurki are in bad need of replacements as FACs are the ones to chase DPRK spy boats and better at countering DPRKN’s patrol boats.

    No and his cronies think reducing manpower and hi tech weapon will save the day. Nah. War with DPRK will be classic infantry battles with artillery playing major role and guerilla war with DPRK special forces creating absoulte pandomonium and havoc to which ROK has little solution to counter in counter insurgency. ROKA’s forces below 38th are mostly under strength reserve forces ill trained to stave off DPRK’s highly trained commandoes.

    But then again, isn’t the ORDER from midget Kim to NO and PIG Uri is to reduce readiness and strength of ROK armed forces?



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