There is nothing in the world President Donald Trump despises more than nations who freeload off the United States.
Typically, that description is fired at Washington’s friends in Europe, most of whom spend a pittance on their own militaries. But the president often lumps the Republic of Korea in the same boat—yet one more rich country that boasts a massive trade deficit ($9.8 billion) with the United States, but nevertheless remains dependent on Washington for its national defense. Trump’s grievances with Seoul were the main reason negotiations over cost-sharing for the U.S. military presence in South Korea proved so contentious (in the end, the South Koreans agreed to pay an additional $77 million a year, a 9.8 percent increase from the previous rate).
The South Koreans, however, have actually been taking their defense obligations quite seriously over the last few years. U.S. military cost-sharing is a separate issue from what Seoul spends annually on its own military. And on this score, President Moon Jae-in’s administration is proving to be even more committed to South Korea’s defense as any of his conservative predecessors.
Over the past two years, Seoul’s defense budget increased by a combined 15.8 percent—the most of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense has committed to annual 7.6 percent defense increases in the 2019-2023 period, which would translate to a $48 billion budget at the end of the period if the defense plan is fulfilled. Assuming current estimates hold up, South Korea will become the fifth or sixth highest military spender in the world by 2022.
Numbers, of course, are one thing. Capability and capacity are another. All of the money in the world won’t do much good if the dollars aren't flowing in the right accounts and the cash isn’t appropriated wisely. Just ask the European members of NATO, which have a political incentive to spend on salaries, pensions, benefits, and personnel costs over weapons systems and equipment maintenance. It’s one reason among many why the once proud Bundeswehr is a complete mess, with only 20 percent of its Tiger combat helicopters and less than 30 percent of its Eurofighter jets operational at the end of last year.
Needless to say, South Koreans don’t have the luxury of living in a peaceful region like Western Europe. East Asia is another animal, one whose politics are rooted in state competition. So the Moon administration is doubling down on procuring the best weapons platforms available, often striking preliminary arms agreements with the United States. In 2014, the South Koreans ordered forty F-35A’s, the most modern combat aircraft on the market. Those jets are just arriving, yet South Korea wants more; according to Defense News, the Defense Ministry’s procurement agency has launched a study to determine whether the purchase of an additional twenty F-35A’s is appropriate. This is on top of another potential order of twenty-four AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopters, which would supplement the thirty-six helicopters purchased in 2013. The South Koreans are also in the market for anti-submarine combat helicopters and air defense systems, all of which will be critical if Seoul hopes to accept full operational control of its own military forces by 2022.
The Kim regime, predictably, isn’t especially pleased with South Korea’s military buildup. To Pyongyang, stocking your air force with the most sophisticated assets on the planet is not conducive to the inter-Korean military accord Moon and Kim signed in September 2018. That agreement was designed to remove the possibility of war breaking out between the two Koreas, established a no-fly zone along the DMZ, and formed a direct channel between North and South Korean military officers so each could communicate with one another on a regular basis and lessen the chances of a flare-up. Rodong Sinmun and other propaganda outlets in the North have warned the Moon government that South Korean military acquisitions will result in unspecified consequences.
The last thing President Moon wants is a collapse of the inter-Korean reconciliation track he has invested considerable personal and political capital into getting off the ground and sustaining. But at the same time, Moon understands that he is responsible for the Republic of Korea’s defense and owes his country the best military equipment money can buy. If a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is unattainable, Seoul will have to be adequately defended for the days when tension and war rhetoric returns.
One hopes the inter-Korean peace process can continue. But if it shrivels, the South Koreans don’t want to be caught unprepared.