South Korea says it is speeding up arms buildup to counter the North
SEOUL— The president of South Korea has vowed to accelerate efforts to strengthen its pre-emptive strike, missile defence and retaliatory capabilities against North Korea, and he renewed his call for the armed forces to become more independent from the United States.
In a speech to mark South Korea’s Armed Forces Day on Thursday (Sept 28), Mr Moon Jae-in, said he would push for the South to move more quickly to retake wartime operational control of its military from its US ally.
Since the Korean War in the early 1950s, the terms of the countries’ alliance have called for an American general to command the South’s 650,000-member military should war break out.
Mr Moon and other liberals have campaigned for South Korea to play a greater role in the alliance, and they have long called for the country to resume responsibility for wartime command as soon as it can feasibly do so. But the idea has gotten more public support as remarks by President Donald Trump have led many South Koreans to doubt his commitment to defend their country.
Mr Moon said Thursday that a more self-reliant military could make itself stronger and more feared by North Korea. But he also said the South should strengthen its alliance with Washington. An aide to Mr Moon said this week that the allies were working on ways to move strategic American military assets into the region more frequently, to help deter North Korea.
“The top priority is to secure abilities to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threats,” Mr Moon said.
Since Mr Moon took office in May, North Korea has conducted at least nine missile tests. On September 3, the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. And the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has been trading increasingly bellicose threats with Mr Trump.
Mr Moon has been more aggressive than his conservative predecessors about building up the South Korean military. After he met with Mr Trump in New York during the United Nations General Assembly last week, Washington agreed to sell more sophisticated weapons to South Korea.
During that meeting, the US and South Korea also agreed to expand the deployment of American strategic military assets to South Korea on a rotating basis, possibly by the end of the year, Mr Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told South Korean political leaders on Wednesday.
Mr Chung did not identify those assets, but in recent years the US has often sent long-range strategic bombers and nuclear-powered submarines to South Korea for military drills.
In his speech on Thursday, the Korean leader said his government was accelerating work on three military programs: a pre-emptive strike system known as Kill Chain that would target North Korean missile sites; an air and missile defence system; and a program devised to launch devastating strikes against North Korea’s military and political leadership should it start a war.
He said the South Korean military should become strong enough to retake its wartime control from the Americans and to “play a leading role in establishing a stronger and more stable combined defence system” together with the US.
South Korea handed operational control of its military to an American general in 1950, when the US rushed troops to the Korean Peninsula to fight the Korean War.
The war ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, and tens of thousands of American soldiers have been based in the South ever since. The South regained peacetime control of its military in 1994, but the US would still command combined American-South Korean forces in the event of war.
Washington agreed in 2007 to return wartime command to Seoul by 2012. But the date was pushed back to 2015, then to the mid-2020s, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs advanced and doubt surfaced over whether the South’s military could build capabilities quickly enough to take the lead in its defence.