Column / Report / Other Papers

[Research Reports] South Korea's Military Build-up Could Prove Counterproductive to National Security:Parochial Interests Exploit Nationalism

Takeshi WATANABE (Senior Fellow, the National Institute for Defense Studies)
  • twitter
  • Facebook

Research Group on 'Korean Peninsula' FY2021-# 6

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.


South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the ROK) conducted a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test from its newly built submarine in September 2021. The SLBM was reportedly developed based on the Hyunmoo-2B in which President Moon Jae-in has shown strong interest. He visited the Agency of Defense Development (ADD) on July 23, 2020 and praised its achievements, including the development of Hyunmoo-2B, by saying that the ROK "ranks sixth globally in military strength".

However, the nation's quest for a formidable military could run contrary to what is necessary for defending the nation because it is the national desire for higher status in the world rather than apolitical national security that motivates South Korea. Nationalism has been exploited by parochial interests connected with the aerospace industry, and this applies not only to missiles or rockets but also to domestically produced fighter aircraft. South Korea could become an example of arms proliferation resulting from a merger between the desire to demonstrate the nation's greatness and local industrial interests.

ROK Missiles Unlikely to Become Serious Concern for China or North Korea

South Korea's most immediate threat is North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or the DPRK). North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missiles indicate that it is pursuing a strategy of decoupling South Korea from the US by deploying missiles with different ranges to separate those two nations as targets. In his speech at the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in January 2021, Kim Jong-un, the DPRK's top leader, declared his objective of developing a number of weapons, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range of 15,000 km capable of reaching any point on the American mainland without reducing payloads. North Korea also claimed to have successfully test-fired newly developed cruise missiles on September 11 and 12 that "hit targets 1,500 km away".

While North Korea's ICBMs could deter the US from intervening in Northeast Asia, its shorter-range missiles and rockets allow the DPRK to manifest the intent to fight a limited regional war with South Korea or Japan. North Korea's ability to strike only regional powers strongly suggests its intention to weaken the incentive for the US to fight for its regional allies, undermining the credibility of American extended deterrence.

A question relevant to South Korea's quest for self-reliance in such circumstances is whether its own missiles can replace US retaliatory power. Some may say that the ROK's own military strength is a more credible deterrent because an attack on its own soil would give South Korea a stronger incentive to retaliate than the US would have. However, small and medium-sized countries generally fail to keep up with great powers in the escalation on which deterrence hugely relies. Even if the ROK military possesses missiles with heavy payloads or other weaponry like that in the US arsenal, an aggressor can expect that South Korea's retaliation would depend almost entirely on one set of weapons. Thus, South Korea cannot deter North Korea from continuing aggressive moves if the aggressor can endure the mostly one-time damage.

The ROK military is reportedly considering using SLBMs or missiles with heavy warheads to eliminate North Korea's leadership if the DPRK starts a war. This strategy is not so convincing either. North Korea may not believe South Korea's intelligence is good enough to identify Kim Jong-un's exact location. In addition, the regime would secure its top leader from a decapitation attempt by reinforcing his bunker as much as possible in the preparatory phase. The skeptical view contends that South Korea's conventional warheads are not powerful enough to destroy the bunker. Any room for skepticism itself casts doubt on deterrence because North Korea could calculate that it would survive even if South Korea were to retaliate. If the regime survives an early counterattack, South Korea will not have much leeway for more fearful options to deter North Korea from further actions.

By contrast, the US preserves many more options to threaten escalating attacks on others in order to control conflicts. The presence of US forces indicates the high probability of retaliating against a local aggressor. US retaliation in the region would not be the end but the starting point for further US military interventions if the aggressor continues to advance. The ultimate escalation to be feared by a regional adversary in the case of American engagement is much greater than conflict with South Korea alone.

Given the difficulty for non-great powers to replace US extended deterrence, one solution to an adversary's decoupling strategy is inviting additional American forces into the region to ensure their involvement in retaliation against local aggression. In 1979, for example, NATO unanimously agreed to deployment of the US' Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles to counter the Soviet Union's decoupling strategy involving the deployment of SS-20s targeting European forces only. South Korea's inclination to develop its own missiles contrasts with that of NATO members in Europe.

The fact that South Korea's missiles fail to constitute the same level of deterrence as an American military presence might be indicated in China's response to the US-ROK agreement reached at the May 2021 summit on lifting the restrictions on South Korea's missile development imposed by the ballistic missile guidelines. Even after the agreement, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman did not make any specific comment about South Korea's future missile capabilities despite questions from foreign correspondents. Instead, he simply repeated the statement used in previous criticisms of mentions of Taiwan issues and the Quad at the US-ROK summit meeting. The spokesman's vague response to South Korea's interest in acquiring longer-range missiles was in stark contrast to China's fierce opposition earlier to the US reinforcing its presence in the ROK. On the US-ROK decision to have US forces in South Korea deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement on July 8, 2016 stating that China was strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to this decision.

What matters more for China in terms of national security is US engagement in Northeast Asia rather than South Korea's own military capabilities. During the negotiations undertaken after the THAAD deployment to repair ROK-China relations, China unilaterally announced that the ROK foreign minister had promised not to accept US tactical nuclear weapons in the future (the South Korean government denied this on September 21, 2017). The result of the negotiations was the Moon administration's "Three Nos" policy stating that the ROK would not join the US missile defense system, develop US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation into a military alliance, or make additional deployments of the THAAD system. Even if these were not official commitments to China, expressing the "Three Nos" policy raises expectations that South Korea would not support any reinforcement of the US's regional presence even in response to increasing threats. While maintaining a position contrary to its objective of invalidating the DPRK's decoupling strategy, the Moon Jae-in administration showed its preference for possessing its own missile capabilities, which is probably not so bad for either China or North Korea.

Consistently, North Korea's response to the ROK's SLBM test was not about direct security concerns but about denying South Korea's lead in the competition between the two Koreas for developing world-class weapons. The president of the DPRK's Academy of National Defense Science stressed that South Korea brags profusely about its possession of "game-changing" underwater weapons, insisting that it has whatever North Korea has, and then declared South Korea's SLBMs to be defective and lacking in some of the critical capabilities of North Korea's missiles. Even though he did mention the possibility of military tensions on the peninsula being raised by South Korea's SLBMs, the statement focused almost entirely on asserting South Korea's failure to reach the technological levels attained by North Korea. On October 12, 2021, President Kim Jong-un commented on the US-ROK missile guidelines at the Defense Development Exhibition. He labelled South Korea's quest for longer-range missiles "avaricious ambition" and accused the nation of taking a "double-dealing attitude" that illogically denied only North Korea's right to self-defense. At this exhibition that put on display a variety of North Korea's missiles, Kim Jong-un praised his country's scientists and military industry for building "a world-class defense capability," dismissing South Korea's missile development as irrational and irrelevant to North Korea's efforts to safeguard its right to self-defense.

Parochial Interests Exploit Nationalism

Like its counterpart in North Korea, the Moon administration did intend to meet the nation's aspiration for one of the greatest militaries in the world. President Moon boasted that South Korea ranked sixth among the world's military powers on several occasions, including the 76th National Liberation Day on August 15, 2021 celebrating the end of Japan's colonial rule. In his address covering this topic, he also said, "a self-reliant national defense has been our desperate dream for the past century." This nationalism may appear to be the idea of prioritizing national defense but this is far from the truth. The country's world ranking in military power has almost nothing to do with defending the ROK from threats in the region.

The patriotic aspiration for a proud military has been exploited by parochial interests among local industries. On October 1, 2021, Armed Forces Day, President Moon said that the government was entering an era of "national space development" going beyond "defense space development." From the beginning of the Moon administration, the National Assembly members most active in pressing the government to lift the missile guidelines' restrictions were, despite their diverse party affiliations, all elected from the potential space industry centers of Gwangju and Daejeon. Gwangju is a metropolis surrounded by South Jeolla Province, where the Naro Space Center is located, and Daejon is another metropolis with major research institutes, including the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, which operates the Naro Space Center.

On October 31, 2017, Kim Kyung-jin, then a National Assembly member from Gwangju, pushed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to end restrictions on the power of domestically produced rockets by asserting that the US-ROK missile guidelines violated the constitution and forced South Korea to give up its sovereignty. Assembly member Kim Dong-cheol, another representative of Gwangju at the time, stressed his doubts about the US-ROK guidelines' legitimacy on November 14, 2017 by asking the defense minister if the Russians or Chinese had restricted North Korea's missile capabilities in a manner similar to the US-ROK guidelines.

When publishing the agreement with the US on abolishing the guidelines' regulations on acquiring solid-fueled space rockets on July 28, 2020, the ROK presidential office made special mention of the rocket development by Perigee Aerospace, a space venture firm headquartered in Daejon. Daejon was the district of a major Assembly member, Park Byeong-seug of the pro-government Democratic Party, who was the strongest advocate for the removal of the missile guidelines' restrictions on developing solid-fueled rockets (Park left the party immediately before he became Speaker of the National Assembly in June 2020).

Boosting these parochial interests connected with rocket development was President Moon's patriotic agenda. When the administration announced that it would be lifting the restrictions on solid-fueled rocket development, Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-jong stressed the significance of this move by citing the president's desire for "a nation that cannot be shaken." According to the deputy national security advisor, President Moon had directed his National Security Council to start direct negotiations with the US White House on revising the missile guidelines in October 2019, about two months after the ROK president's address on the idea of an unshaken nation at that year's National Liberation Day.

This merging of patriotism and parochial interests is not limited to missile-related technology. On National Liberation Day 2021, President Moon praised the KF-21, South Korea's first indigenous fighter jet, as another achievement that helped South Korea rank sixth among the world's military powers, and this proved to be another example of local industrial influence on national defense. At the rollout ceremony for the KF-21 prototype in April 2021, the president explained that the KF-21 (then KF-X) program had officially begun in earnest in 2010. Indeed, until 2010, the ROK Air Force had opposed this indigenous fighter program, thinking that it could constitute a hindrance to the air force's mission.

The program had been dropped from the government's proposed budgets for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. While the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) was willing to take the time needed to develop indigenous fighter jets, the ROK Air Force was seeking to quickly acquire new fighter jets to replace its aging and increasingly accident-prone F-5s. On November 20, 2009, the minister of DAPA confessed before the National Assembly that the KF-X could fail to meet the air force's requirements because the program could turn out to lack feasibility. The minister also admitted that the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses had submitted a report on the KF-X negatively comparing it to foreign-made jets.

Nevertheless, the budget subcommittee of the National Assembly's National Defense Committee added the KF-X program as an expense item for both fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Although the Assembly's Special Committee on Budget and Accounts deleted this expense item in the 2010 budget, pressure from the National Defense Committee proved effective; the ROK government's advisory council on the aerospace industry approved a medium-term development plan inclusive of the KF-X program in January 2010, only weeks after a budget without the program had been passed. The KF-X program began in earnest from that time.

One of the strongest advocates for the program among the National Defense Committee members in the early days of the KF-X program was an official elected from Jinhae City, Kim Hak-song. Several aerospace firms such as Samsung Techwin (now Hanhwa Techwin), Firstec, and LIG Nex1 were located near Jinhae. Samsung Techwin was a major shareholder in Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the KF-21's primary manufacturer. The then-chairman of the National Defense Committee's budget subcommittee, the conservative leader Yoo Seung-min, was an Assembly member from Daegu City, in which both LIG Nex1 and Samsung Thales (now Hanhwa Thales), another aerospace firm, operated plants.

In the absence of these strong parochial interests closely tied to the aerospace industry, the KF-21 program, which the ROK Air Force did not originally prefer, would never have materialized. National pride worked to legitimize industrial interests. At the KF-21 rollout ceremony at a KAI plant in April, President Moon said that the government "has set a goal to steer the country toward becoming one of the world's seven aviation powerhouses in the 2030s." This is not a story of apolitical national security.


South Korea could be an outstanding case of a missile and air power build-up driven by the fusion of nationalism and parochial interests rather than by the necessity of managing outside military threats. As a result, its ambitious aerospace programs could prove counterproductive to deterrence or fulfillment of the armed forces' professional responsibilities. This tendency of exploiting nationalism will continue for as long as South Korea can endure it economically or for as long as it can expect to gain economically.

(This is English translation of Japanese paper originally published on January 17.)