South Korea unveils defence reform plan

SEOUL • South Korea's Defence Ministry yesterday unveiled a reform blueprint to help the military adapt to the region's changing security landscape, transnational and non-military threats, and the country's demographic shifts.

The ministry said it expects the reform initiative to cost 270.7 trillion won (S$330 billion) from next year to 2023, which translates into a 7.5 per cent rise in its annual defence budget.

Under the Defence Reform 2.0 blueprint, Seoul will press ahead with a controversial military strategy that includes an operational plan to incapacitate the North Korean leadership in a major conflict, reported local media.

There had earlier been speculation that the plan might be revised or toned down to avoid antagonising the North, amid a thaw in tensions on the Korean peninsula.

South Korea drew up the three-axis defence platform in 2016 at the height of cross-border tensions triggered by the North's nuclear and missile tests. It consists of the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, which includes a "decapitation unit" to take out the enemy's leadership, the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike platform, and the Korea Air and Missile Defence system.

Speaking to top military brass yesterday, President Moon Jae-in said: "While inter-Korean relations are improving and efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula are under way, how things will end up still remains uncertain."

Mr Moon, a former Special Forces commando, called for a transformation in the military, saying that if it did not accept change now, it would "inevitably fall behind", reported JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

A government source was quoted as saying by the newspaper: "While there have been changes in inter-Korean relations, military reductions (by the two Koreas) or actual denuclearisation (of North Korea) have yet to take place."

As part of the reforms, South Korea's current 618,000-strong military will be downsized to 500,000 by 2022. The number of generals will be cut from 436 to 360 in line with the overall troop drawdown.

By 2021, the military aims to reduce mandatory service in the army and marines from 21 months to 18 months, in the navy from 23 to 20 and in the air force from 24 to 20.

In North Korea, state media confirmed yesterday that General Ri Yong Gil has become the new chief of the military's general staff, the latest in leader Kim Jong Un's leadership changes.

As Mr Kim shifts the focus to the economy and pursues diplomacy with the US, he has been replacing older, more conservative officers who were wedded to the country's nuclear doctrine with loyalists who would follow any changes he may make, US officials and analysts say.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2018, with the headline 'South Korea unveils defence reform plan'. Print Edition | Subscribe