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Asia Times February 11, 2005

The South Korean bombshell that wasn't

By David Isenberg

Much has been made of South Korea's recent Defense White Paper saying the United States would dispatch 690,000 troops and 2,000 warplanes if war broke out on the Korean Peninsula. It also dropped the old phrase "main enemy", meaning North Korea, which once threatened to turn the South into a "sea of fire" in a war. But experts say there's really nothing alarming in the paper, which underscores what is already known about the US commitment to defend the South.

This comes at a time when the North Korean nuclear crisis is still brewing, the US is moving some forces out of Seoul and out of South Korea, and Seoul itself plans to downsize its military.

The South Korean Defense Ministry's White Paper, issued last Friday, is its first since 2000. It has not yet been translated into English and is not yet available online, but excerpts have been reported by news media. According to a Captain Kim, not further identified, at the South Korean Embassy in Washington, an English-language translation may not be available for a couple of months.

North Korea was predictably outraged by the paper, saying South Korea was opposed to reconciliation and revealed its intention to pursue "pursue inter-Korean confrontation and war".

South Korea currently is engaged in a campaign to reconcile with its communist brethren to the north and is encouraging investment there and building an industrial park on the border for South Korean manufacturing firms that will use North Korean labor. Officially dropping the phrase "main enemy" to describe the North is considered part of Seoul's efforts to normalize relations.

The South Korean Defense Ministry began labeling North Korea its "main enemy" in its White Paper of 1995, a year after the North Korean nuclear crisis first flared. At that time, South Koreans were angered by threatening remarks at a border meeting by a North Korean official who said that if a war broke out on the peninsula, Seoul would be turned into "a sea of fire". Until 1994, North Korea had only been referred to as an "enemy" in earlier South Korean Defense White Papers.

But now, in the new paper, the preferred language is "direct military threat". According to a British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) report, the paper said, "Safeguarding the nation from outside military threats and invasion means protecting the nation from not only direct military threats - North Korea's conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction and their forward deployment of troops - but also all outside military threats that pose a threat to our safety."

According to Jim Goodby, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, "There is not any fundamental change. It is more consistent with Kim Dae- jung's Sunshine Policy."

Goodby told Asia Times Online that the White Paper is, in fact, fairly unremarkable. "It underscores US military commitment to South Korea, and I think that's welcome. I see it as continuity. The fundamental point is that they have a military threat from North Korea. I don't see anything in the White Paper to be concerned about."

Diplomatic initiatives to improve ties with the North can only go so far, however. The South Korean Defense Ministry said it would continue to call the North an "enemy" in its internal documents.

The North Korean government has assailed the new White Paper. A report on Saturday by the Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang said, apparently contradicting some of what has otherwise been reported about the document, "The South Korean military authorities' announcement of the decision to use the conception of 'the principal enemy' in the new White Paper for National Defense, and imbue the military with the idea of confrontation with fellow countrymen in the North, is little short of the revelation of their intention to go against national reconciliation and unity and pursue inter-Korean confrontation and war."

The Pentagon had no comment on the White Paper. Spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Greg Hicks said, "We don't comment on numbers. But any deployment to the region would be contingent on the nature of the crisis."

According to independent experts, the claim that nearly 700,000 US troops would deploy to South Korea is not news. Balbina Hwang, policy analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, said, "The previous White Paper issued in 2000 states, 'US augmentation forces, including army, navy, air force and marines, are [composed] of approximately 690,000 troops.' So this is nothing new."

While it may not be new, a large deployment is a complex process. According to the website of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia: To execute the US "win-win strategy" and support the United Nations Command (UNC) and ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) operation plans, the US augmentation forces deployment plan on the Korean Peninsula is set at all times. This plan mainly includes in-Korea forces, pre-planned, time-phased deployment forces, augmentation forces, and foreign support forces. The plan centers on the forces under the US Pacific Command, and part of the forces from the US and other theaters are included as well. The size of the US augmentation forces, which include ground, naval, air and marine forces, will amount to at least 640,000 troops, and these forces possess fighters, support aircraft, and aircraft-carrier battle groups and amphibious flotillas equipped with the latest fighters.

If a crisis does occur on the Korean Peninsula, the US augmentation forces units will be deployed after the approval of the National Supreme Command and under the command of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. After deployment, the augmentation forces will go through the process of unit integration, and then be committed to specific operations. Hwang of the Heritage Foundation noted, however, "In the past the numbers have been produced jointly by the ROK [Republic of Korea]-US Combined Forces Command in concert with the South Korean government. I suspect it wasn't a joint number but one put out by the South Korean Defense Ministry."

Some see a disconnect between the large number of US forces called for and South Korea's attempt to downgrade the North Korean threat publicly. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, noted that South Korea is planning to cut its military forces by about 40,000 troops. "It bothers me that they cut their forces at the same time that they envision a massive infusion of US troops," he said.

Balbina Hwang said, "South Korea doesn't want to label North Korea the primary enemy. Yet at the same time if it isn't, why does one need to have such a large number of troops? It strikes me as highly inconsistent."

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.


Copyright 2005, Asia Times Online Ltd.