Wary of N. Korea, Seoul boosts defence budget

South Korean army K1A1 tanks in an exercise in a field near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Pocheon.
South Korean army K1A1 tanks in an exercise in a field near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Pocheon.PHOTO: REUTERS

But Park also hopes to work with Pyongyang to increase frequency of family reunions

SEOUL • President Park Geun Hye vowed yesterday to strengthen South Korea's defence capabilities - backed by a defence budget hike - to guard against future provocations from North Korea.

At the same time, she said Seoul would try and work with Pyongyang to increase the frequency of family reunions for those separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.

In an annual Budget address at the National Assembly, Ms Park outlined plans to increase defence spending by 4 per cent next year to 39 trillion won (S$48 billion) - higher than the overall Budget growth of 3 per cent.

Defence spending accounted for 14.5 per cent of South Korea's 2015 national Budget of 375 trillion won.

South Korea has been increasing spending on high-tech weapons in recent years to be able to conduct a pre-emptive strike in the event that North Korea shows signs of launching a nuclear attack.

"(South Korea) will strengthen defence capability, with a focus on anti-North deterrence, to effectively respond to possible provocations from North Korea and other security-destabilising factors surrounding the Korean peninsula," she said.

The increase comes after signs that North Korea has been expanding its nuclear arsenal and improving the range of its missiles. The President specifically cited a recent escalation in cross-border military tensions that was triggered by a landmine explosion that maimed two Seoul soldiers.

Seoul took a hard line with Pyongyang over the incident as both sides put their militaries on high alert and warned of a possible armed conflict. In the end, North Korea appeared to blink first, approaching the South with a proposal for talks.

"The provocation was another reminder that we can open the door to normal dialogue and cooperation only when we... maintain a watertight defence posture," Ms Park said.

The talks that eventually took place led to an agreement in late August to defuse tensions and hold a rare reunion for divided families. The week-long reunion event, held in a North Korean mountain resort, wrapped up on Monday after allowing nearly 1,000 people to meet long-lost relatives for the first time in more than six decades.

The emotional gathering was only "small progress", Ms Park said, noting the complaints about the frequency of the reunions and the limited time allotted for each one.

"The government will make all possible efforts to hold the reunions on a regular basis and allow the separated families to check whether their relatives are alive," she said.

Millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the Korean conflict that sealed the division on the peninsula.

Most died without meeting or hearing from their relatives on the other side of the border across which all civilian exchanges are banned. North Korea has long manipulated the reunion issue as a tool for extracting concessions from the South, and has rejected proposals to increase their frequency.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Wary of N. Korea, Seoul boosts defence budget'. Print Edition | Subscribe