South Korea’s National Assembly confirmed for the first time this week a naval officer, Admiral Choi Yun-hee, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Given the historic dominance of the army in South Korea’s military, which once focused solely on deterring an all out land war with North Korea, Admiral Choi’s appointment corresponds to a widening scope in South Korea’s thinking about defense. This evolving outlook should help South Korea better address the country’s increasing interest in protecting maritime trade routes and challenges posed by rising regional maritime tensions in Asia.
South Korea’s 2012 Defense White Paper identifies its national defense objective as “to protect the country from external military threats and invasions, to support peaceful unification, and to contribute to regional stability and world peace.” The statement acknowledges both North Korea’s military threat as well as the need to safeguard against other potential security threats, as well as the need to contribute to international stability.
To address the North Korean threat, Choi reiterated in confirmation hearings before the National Assembly South Korean defense priorities toward North Korea. He spoke about a tailored deterrence strategy adopted a few weeks ago at the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meetings, which includes South Korea’s intent to preempt, through enhanced strike and missile defense capabilities, possible North Korean use of nuclear weapons.
To contribute to regional stability, Admiral Choi’s assumption of the JCS Chairmanship will presumably provide a boost for South Korean efforts to build capabilities to protect its maritime domain. The ROK Navy has announced plans to procure three additional Aegis destroyers to be built by 2025. Given South Korea’s interest in developing what the 2012 Defense White Paper refers to as “strong soft power,” an expansion of ROK naval capabilities (including the establishment of a controversial ROK naval base on Jeju Island) provides South Korea with more reach to play constructive maritime roles while hedging against the rise of territorial disputes in the region.
To contribute to world peace, South Korea’s motivations and rationale for more actively expanding its contributions to international security operations continue to grow, as predicted in CFR’s study on Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Stability. An expansion of South Korean naval capabilities will enhance South Korean efforts to contribute to multilateral maritime stabilization missions, building on South Korea’s successful contribution to multilateral anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In addition, within the past two years South Korea has almost doubled the number of personnel as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKO), from 637 in 2011 to around 1120 this year.
As part of his new responsibilities, Admiral Choi will also face a number of difficult procurement decisions in response to a fluid Asian security environment . South Korea deferred a decision in late September on which type of next generation air fighter it intends to procure. In addition, South Korea seemed interested in acquiring Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities from the United States, but costs of acquisition appear to have taken it off the table. And South Korea has dedicated itself to the development of a Korean Air Missile Defense (KAMD) capability to handle low-altitude North Korean missile threats, but questions remain regarding interoperability of KAMD with U.S. radar and missile defense capabilities. Each of these decisions will require good judgement to discern South Korea’s future defense needs in an increasing complex security environment. Moreover, the Park administration will make these decisions against the backdrop of a budget that is under increasing pressure from social welfare requirements to meet the needs of an aging society.