Rand: South Korea Still a Military Parasite

Years ago, I quoted extensively from a Rand report on then-President Roh Moo Hyun’s plans to cut the ROK military budget and settle into a cozy military and economic parasitism on the country Roh’s supporters loved to hate. But now that Roh is a fading bad memory, the alliance stands on firm ground again, right? Wrong:

The ROK has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a strong economy. Yet despite this economic strength, the ROK still depends in major ways on the United States for its deterrence and defense. In recent years, U.S. leaders have urged the ROK to bear more of its military costs. For example, during his visit to Seoul for the Oct. 22 ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “We encourage the Republic of Korea’s political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea’s emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula.”

Many U.S. leaders wonder why the ROK is not taking more responsibility for its own defense. Why is it that the ROK spends only 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense, despite the threat they face on the peninsula, while the United States spends roughly 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense?

For almost 60 years now, the United States has subsidized the ROK economy by not forcing the ROK to pay for a fuller share of its defense requirements. While this approach may have made sense until the ROK developed a vibrant economy, Americans are increasingly feeling that the ROK government is taking advantage of the United States. If ROK national security is adequate to allow the ROK Defense Reform Plan 2020 budget to be significantly reduced, then wouldn’t the United States also be justified in reducing its military commitments to the ROK?

You tell ’em. Read the rest here. A major worry raised in the report is that the ROK Army simply doesn’t have the manpower to occupy North Korea when it collapses, which doesn’t rumble like such a distant thunder these days. This threatens to draw the United States into a very, very ill-advised occupation of another failed state that’s deeply inculcated with anti-Americanism.

If South Korea really wants to be ready for unification, the answer probably isn’t raising a massive conventional force. The answer is to raise and train a purpose-made reserve force that’s designed for civil affairs work — restoring essential services, providing humanitarian aid, and doing simple security functions. The ROK Army should save itself for the job of an army — to chase after the last regime dead-enders and stand guard on the southern bank of the Yalu River, while the USFK provides air cover.

Either that, or get ready for the Outer Koguryo Semi-Autonomous Zone.


  1. Why is it that the ROK spends only 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense, despite the threat they face on the peninsula, while the United States spends roughly 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense?

    Few countries come close to the 4.5 percent mark; besides, deterrence is cheaper than fighting two major wars.

    At any rate, South Korea’s 2.70 percent is higher than most of the US’s allies, including Canada, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Germany, the UK, and Taiwan. (Japan is the only one with a built-in excuse.)

    And this percentage rate is not counting the opportunity costs of subjecting most of the males in the country to an average of two to two-and-a-half years of mandatory military service during some of their most productive years. Those men are paid far less than the comparative rate they would get in the United States, which also cuts down on the monetary amount, but it does come at a significant cost.

    South Korea as of late (i.e., under Lee) has been expanding its cooperative role with the US outside the Peninsula, and that also should count for something.

    My quibble is with Rand, not you, Joshua. I like your recommendations at the end of this post.