14.10.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Moon Jae-in’s Great Purge. Episode 3: “the RK Army Reform”


On August 28, 2017, against the backdrop of the “provocations of the DPRK”, the President of the RK Moon Jae-in made a statement on the importance of reforming the country’s defense system, and instructed the military to develop a new offensive strategy in case of aggression on the part of the DPRK. “I want you to increase the mobility and air defense capabilities of our army’s air defense”, Moon said, noting that if Pyongyang decides to “carry out a provocation” that would cross the extreme line, or if it attacked Seoul, the RK army must be able to wreck Pyongyang within two weeks and carry the war to the territory of the North.

Such instruction constitutes part of the military reform announced by the new authorities of the Republic of Korea. These attempts were made earlier as well. However, according to Yonhap News Agency, “reforming the defense system will again turn into a mere slogan if it is not preceded by a serious discussion … each preceding government has called for a military reform; why is it so that our armed forces cannot effect military operational management, and why was the implementation of the key defense systems postponed notwithstanding the continuing provocative actions of the DPRK and the success of the North Korean nuclear and missile program?”

Moon Jae-in also demanded that the military department provide “a detailed plan as to how and by what time the three pillars of defense shall be implemented” (meaning the South Korean air defense system, as well as the means for a mass-scale response stroke and mass destruction) and to prepare an offensive strategy in case of a strike by the DPRK on Seoul. At the same time, “it is important to keep in mind that military servicemen are also ordinary people, and our main responsibility is to bring them back to their families in a healthy state”. Prepare breakthrough measures like reforming the military culture, providing guarantees for the protection of human rights among the military servicemen, the equality of men and women, reforming the system of judicial protection for military servicemen”.

A number of military experts note some “mutually exclusive paragraphs” in these statements, somewhat like “please operate me, but without anesthesia and pain”. However, in the author’s view, such daring statements and plans are backed up by the following reason: like any other president, Moon Jae-in has to carry out personnel purges, appointing his supporters to the key posts. This is especially important for a representative of the “left”, in view of the fact that the army and law enforcement agencies in general have been the natural support for the conservative forces. It is sufficient to recall that the main adversary of the transfer of command to the South Korean troops during wartime was not the political leadership, but the South Korean generals who were not eager to assume additional responsibility.

And thus, Moon has found what appears to him a rather ingenious plan. Making use of the current situation, he has played the anti-North Korean card in an expert manner. As a result, his adversaries in the conservative camp will be forced to prove that they are not afraid to go to war with the DPRK without American assistance and are real patriots of their country. If they fail to develop such a plan, Moon will be able to criticize them for incompetency in the face of “the threat from the North” or for absence of patriotism, and this will allow him to carry out the purge, not according to the model of “the left have come to power and are removing the representatives of the right”, but rather have it positioned as “personnel sanitation” in the face of a possible war.

The problem is that such plans look well only on paper. Firstly, it will only strengthen the tension between Moon and the military authorities. Secondly, taking into consideration that Moon has deliberately put forward unrealizable requirements, his critics can put forward a counter accusation of incompetence and populism that, again, are outside the left-right opposition model. Considering that Moon has already announced a number of ambiguous decisions (for example, refusal from the focus on the nuclear energy industry), his enemies can quite easily resort to an all-around siege as soon as the negative consequences of such decisions begin demonstrating themselves in their totality.

Another area of Moon’s activity in the military sphere is connected to his ambition to accelerate the transfer to Seoul of the right to command its own armed forces at war time. As Moon Jae-in stated on August 20 at a ceremony of the appointment of the new Chairman of the Unified Committee of the Chiefs of Staff, the government will render all-round assistance in the transfer to Seoul of operational control over its troops during wartime, the soonest possible creation of the air defense system, and other similar projects. “North Korea will be more afraid of us, and our people will have more trust in our military servicemen when we have operational control during wartimes”.

Let us recall that although as early as in 1994, Seoul regained the right to control its own army in peacetime, the final transfer of the control was planned for 2009. However, on the initiative of the Korean party, this deadline was prolonged to 2012, and later, against the background of the incident involving the ROKS Cheonan sinking, it was agreed to shift the date to December 1, 2015. Thereafter, in 2015, the deadline for transferring the command was again moved to the beginning of 2020, in relation to the necessity for the country to create and start using its own Kill Chain missile defense system as well as KAMD air and missile defense systems that are set to counter the rocket and nuclear threats posed by the North. It is expected that these systems will be developed by the beginning of 2020.

And so, the parties seem to have agreed “to accelerate mutual efforts for the efficient and soonest-possible transfer of operational control”. This is stated in a report released after the regular bilateral dialogue on the joint defense that took place September 27-28 in the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea. It is implied that more details will be voiced in October within the framework of the South Korean-American consultative meeting on issues of mutual security. According to experts, the government intends to complete the process of transferring the operational control before the expiry of Moon Jae-in’s presidential term. 

To add on, while referring to data from the Ministry of Defense, the deputy of the National Assembly from the opposing Free Korea Party, Kim Hak Yeon, stated that the agency had embarked on a three-stage plan for obtaining operational control over its troops before the beginning of 2020. The first stage envisages the strengthening of the basic system by 2018; the second is tailored for expanding the command capabilities; the third has not yet been defined.

Nevertheless, the “acceleration” is not so much Moon’s victory, but the development of the US strategy. The initiative on transferring the control was expressed by Washington, not by Seoul, and such plans have been discussed long before Trump’s presidency. As noted by the author in one of the earlier articles, American military analysts are determined to provide greater autonomy to the South Korean army, while the initiative regarding the continuous postponement of the transfer of command comes from the South Korean military and from some of its politicians.

The reason is simple: the current situation releases the South Korean generals from the bulk of responsibility and functions related to strategic planning, and they are not so willing to take up the burden. However, here, their interests contradict Moon’s wish to strengthen his positions in the law-enforcement block. As we have already noted, the generals will have to prove their anti-Communist zeal and competency.

At the same time, while the transfer of control is underway, the American troops will be strengthening their positions on the peninsula: the deployment of American strategic weapons on rotation basis near the Korean Peninsula will begin at the end of this year. According to the the Head of the National Security Agency under the RK president, ChonYi Yong, this will help Seoul increase its defense capacity, as the mutual defense treaty between the RK and the USA provides for the use of all means of deterrence, including nuclear.

At present, American F-16 fighter aircraft and an infantry brigade are deployed on a rotation basis in the Republic of Korea. Further on, F-22 and F-38B “invisible” fighter aircraft and Patriot anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems will be additionally deployed. Fighter aircraft could be deployed at the Air Force base in Osan, Gyeonggi-do Province or Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do Province. Rotation will take place every three months. Additionally, the USA will more often relocate B-1B bombers, send nuclear-propelled submarines and aircraft carriers.

Besides, the United States will not object to the creation of a nuclear submarine fleet in the RK. More than ten years ago, South Korea made an attempt at implementing the so-called “Project 362” aimed at the creation of the country’s own nuclear submarine. It is believed that such warships will significantly assist in strengthening the power of the South at sea in the face of the growing threat posed by the North, which has a large submarine fleet. However, in 2004, South Korea postponed these plans due to the negative stand of the US.

Now, however, permission has been granted, and, according to the estimates of some Korean experts, since the construction of the first nuclear submarine for the RK will take at least five years, in the meantime, Seoul could lease a submarine of that class from any other country.

Thus, Moon is again pursuing a Janus-faced policy. On the first part, there is no great desire to quarrel with the USA, and on the second, populist (and not only populist) actions are being undertaken that are aimed at strengthening the army and ultimately restoring the country’s sovereignty. On the third part, all this is being played out from the point of view of ousting the conservative-minded generals from the army.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.