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South Korea’s Secret Weakness

Call it the Korean conundrum, a question to baffle students of international relations. Why is the Republic of Korea—the ROK, or South Korea—so militarily weak?

Ever since the ROK was established in 1948, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has posed a threat. DPRK dictator Kim Il-sung launched an invasion in 1950, which was rebuffed only after much bloodshed and with the aid of U.S. troops who remained in the South after an armistice was signed in 1953. They are still there.

In the early years the South was vulnerable. But the balance of power gradually shifted. During the 1960s the South liberalized its economy, triggering sustained growth and propelling it to become the world’s 13th or 14th largest.

As South Korea was taking off, the North was stagnating. By the late 1990s the DPRK was devastated by famine. A regime that celebrated Juche, or self-reliance, ended up dependent on handouts from Beijing.


Today there is no comparison between the two Koreas. The South is an important international player; the DPRK is a national wreck. South Korea has upwards of 40 times the North’s GDP. The ROK also has a vast technological lead, full access to global credit markets, and the political clout that comes from extensive trade and investment. The South’s population is twice as great as that of North Korea.

In short, the conditions that left the South open to North Korean aggression no longer exist. Yet South Korea remains dependent on America. And U.S. policymakers assume that Washington must defend the ROK, apparently forever.

Only in military affairs is the South’s superiority in doubt—and the DPRK’s advantage lies in the quantity, not quality, of its arms. “Military clashes between South and North Korea over the past years in West Sea have proven that the conventional weapons equipment performance of NK is inferior to that of ROK,” Dr. Sungpyo Hong of Ajou University reports. “Altogether, the ROK is superior to the North in conventional weapons and equipment in general.”

The DPRK has roughly twice the number of men under arms, nearly 50 percent more main battle tanks, and twice as many artillery pieces. Rolling that mass southward would do damage but would not conquer the South. Pyongyang’s greatest advantage is defensive. In any war the DPRK could wreck Seoul—which lies some 25 miles from the border—with artillery and SCUD missiles, a very high price for the ROK to pay even for victory.


But here is where the conundrum comes in: why does the ROK continue to lag behind the North in any measure of military power? The disparity in numbers is not due to circumstances beyond Seoul’s control. There is no special geographical feature that ensures, say, that there will always be fewer men under arms in the southern half of the peninsula. Rather, the South Korean government doesn’t want to spend more money to defend itself.

Over the last decade, according to Dr. Ho, the “ROK military has decreased its troops from 690,000 to 650,000” even though the North had more than a million men in uniform. Seoul cannot complain about the resulting numerical disparity.

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation points to Seoul’s Defense Reform Plan 2020, adopted in 2005, which planned to cut total military manpower from 681,000 to 500,000. Nothing has changed in the years since, even after repeated North Korean provocations, including the sinking of an ROK warship and bombardment of an ROK island in 2010.

Apparently South Koreans aren’t worried about their defense. Or they assume they can rely on Americans to protect them with whatever force is necessary.

Yet America’s foreign-policy community seems oblivious to the perverse incentives of military welfare. It is widely accepted that generous social welfare in the U.S. long discouraged work, marriage, and education: this realization drove the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation.

Washington’s military welfare for foreign nations has a similarly debilitating impact. Even while relying on America for defense from North Korea, the ROK began fashioning a blue-water navy capable of conducting more distant missions. And Seoul spent a decade actually subsidizing the DPRK, as part of the so-called “Sunshine Policy.”

Colonial Americans secured their homeland before embarking on foreign adventures. They certainly didn’t expect Great Britain, France, Germany, or some other nation to protect them for decades so they could, in the words of Klingner, “assume a greater role on the world stage that is commensurate with” their growing capabilities. Washington should welcome South Korea’s emergence as a genuine global power. But that should not mean subsidizing South Koreans’ pursuit of foreign aggrandizement.

[1]The emergence of a prosperous and democratic South Korea has benefited the U.S. and the rest of the world—it’s one of the great post-World War II success stories. Americans have special reason to be satisfied, since Washington’s defense shield enabled the ROK to develop despite North Korea’s threats.

But the South no longer needs U.S. support, which by now is only a source of military unpreparedness, the root of the Korean conundrum. Peoples of the two nations should remain friends—cultural, family, and economic ties do not depend on military deployments. And the two governments should cooperate in areas of shared political and military interest. But it is high time for Seoul to shift from security dependent to security adult and solve its strategic conundrum once and for all.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.


24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "South Korea’s Secret Weakness"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On February 21, 2013 @ 1:47 am

Doug, you seem to assume that South Korea, if it ceased to receive U.S. military aid, if U.S. armed forces were withdrawn from the peninsula, would be bound to increase its military spending to put as many men under arms as the militarized North. But I have the sense from the statistics you have cited that the South is reducing its military forces because it knows that even with fewer men in uniform the superiority of its weaponry will give it the advantage it needs to win any conceivable war. and adding to the number of its forces will not appreciably decrease the damage it would expect to sustain, while it would constitute a significant burden upon its national economy.

From the subheading to y0ur essay, “Our military aid to Seoul gives Pyongyang its only edge,” I had expected an argument along the lines I believe I would find persuasive – that without American military aid, and, in particular, without the American military presence, the declared purpose of the North Korean army would come to an end, and the very existence of the North Korean state, already hanging by a thread, would immediately be called into question. I suppose you might say the withdrawal of that aid would give the South the ultimate edge in planning for any military conflict, but it would also introduce what would be not only the more likely, but indeed the more consequential threat to the South’s peace and security – a disintegration of society in the North, a flood of refugees, and the need for the DPRK’s neighbors, most especially its fellow countrymen in the South, to fill the vacuum. Western observers were surprised two decades ago that the cost to West Germany to absorb the old DDR was much higher than had been expected. No one is under the illusion that the cost of bringing North Korea into a unified Korea will not exceed the German experience by many multiples.

Indeed, one might pardon the South Koreans for concluding that only real reason that the U.S. military presence in Korea is indispensable to their peace and security is to prevent the burden of reunification from being thrust upon them.

#2 Comment By G LaForte On February 21, 2013 @ 5:23 am

Since China and North Korea have nuclear weapons, the natural solution is for the United States to pull out its troops from both Japan and South Korea, and either share nuclear weapons technology with both of them, or, by threatening to do this, get China to force regime change in North Korea and remove the DPRK’s nuclear capability.
I do realize this sounds quite extreme, but I would love to see a better suggestion.
Of course, this is clearly never going to happen, but the two main things preventing it are both pretty irrational: (1) the superstitious, Luddite fear of nuclear weapons that has been built up with tendentious, apocalyptic rhetoric in American and European culture for over half a century, and (2) the foolish belief by American political elites that the USA alone should take responsibility for and control everything in the world to prevent the bogeyman of “instability” from causing some terrible thing.

#3 Comment By Cliff On February 21, 2013 @ 7:21 am

I don’t think this makes the case that South Korea _is_ militarily weak; assertion is not evidence. The only substantive claim in this neocon hash is the complaint that that South Korea has fewer men under arms than is used to have, and fewer than has the North. But they still have 20 times the number that the US has in Korea — how are they “dependent” on the US? Does anyone doubt which side would win a renewed Korean War, whether or not the US participated?

I think “South Korea’s Secret Weakness” is so secret that it doesn’t exist. I’m sure the country has weaknesses but military preparedness isn’t one of them.

#4 Comment By Matthew On February 21, 2013 @ 9:59 am

I agree in your assessment that the US does not need a military force in SK, but you have left out the China factor and have propped up the capabilities of the DPRK. We are in SK in part not solely because of the DPRK but to limit China. I think it is important to point out if there was actually a sustained war between the two Korea’s; the only way the DPRK would stand a chance is if China got involved. Otherwise, there are four huge factors that would inhibit the North from waging a successful onslaught.
First, the north does not have adequate food supplies, if you can’t feed your army then your army does not have the energy to fight. Second, on energy, the North does not have oil. Most oil they get is given to them for free by either SK or China. No oil = no energy to sustain an army’s equipment will limit movement and raw fighting power without modern war machines. Third, the North has no logistics; they do not have any satellites, they do not have a functioning air force, no UAV’s, and primitive communications that would be taken out in the first opening hours of a war. All of this means they are blind, and a country with no logistics does not have the means to control their own army and cannot see the enemy’s movement. Which bring us to the fourth point, in the 21st century if you do not have an air force or the means to protect yourself against an enemy air force, your military will be defeated in as little as two weeks. As previously stated the North does not have a functioning air force and it does not have any effective anti-air capability. Any military to military engagement will use as little ground forces as possible and will be won in the air.
In truth, the impoverished country has an impoverished military which would not have the means to wage war, all of this will only get worse as time moves on. The North knows this, which might explain the recent increase in their craziness in showing their desperation as the window of power is closing.

#5 Comment By Mightypeon On February 21, 2013 @ 10:39 am

There is a often underappreciated reason why Germany, South Korea and Japan have militaries somewhere “below their economic weight class”, even though all of these militaries are not exactly unformidable, for example South Koreas 600K army is based on conscription, a measure that is not acceptable for the USA despite the USA actually being in a hot war.

A military is chiefly a means of foreign policy, and entails significant costs. If a state does not fully control its own foreign policy, it has much less of an incentive to purchase costly increases of its military power, since its military power may very well be used at the behest of its overlord, or even be used against that states own interests.

#6 Comment By Selvar On February 21, 2013 @ 10:54 am

“Colonial Americans secured their homeland before embarking on foreign adventures. They certainly didn’t expect Great Britain, France, Germany, or some other nation to protect them for decades.”

French and Indian war anyone? Not that I support keeping South Korea as a dependent.

#7 Comment By JB On February 21, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

Time to close our bases in Asia and stop risking a world war with Fascist/Socialist China over Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or some islands that are inconsequential to
American security or freedom.

#8 Comment By Dan Phillips On February 21, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

Bandow is arguing that the US needs to stop subsidizing Korea with defense welfare and that Korea needs to start carrying its own load. This is obviously desirable from a non-interventionist standpoint. Why is everyone busting his chops?

#9 Comment By Joey On February 21, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

To say that the ROK lags behind the DPRK in any measure of military power is simplistic and untrue. Quality of arms, training, command and control, etc sustain qualitiative military advantage. The ROK is far superior on all counts.

#10 Comment By J On February 21, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

Bandow is arguing that the US needs to stop subsidizing Korea with defense welfare and that Korea needs to start carrying its own load. This is obviously desirable from a non-interventionist standpoint. Why is everyone busting his chops?

Because the real problem of the region, militarily speaking, is the Chinese arms buildup.

#11 Comment By Laser On February 21, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

When your front line fighters or Main Battle Tanks are 10 times more capable then the enemies, you don’t need to match his numbers to be the superior army. A small number of F-15 and F-16s could easily destroy the aging MiGs of the DPRK.

#12 Comment By Mike On February 21, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

The US is quite obviously subsidizing the military defense of South Korea with our war guarantees backed up with our deployed troops, aircraft and ships along our enormous stateside force that can be brought to bear. How can anyone doubt this?

The South Koreans spend only 2.7% of GDP on defense (compared to the US 4.8%), while still technically being in a war with N. Korea halted by an armistice. Pooh-Pooh the “war” technicality as you might, but their maniacal northern neighbor has been testing nuclear weapons, has 1 million troops under arms and plenty of artillery to severely punish the south.

Does any seriously think the South Korean military posture would be the same absent our war guarantee and deployed forces? They don’t have a more capable military because they have us as their backstop.

#13 Comment By Dr. Ken Eckert On February 21, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

The article is interesting but I am less convinced. This number of “one million NK troops” is always bandied about, but I’ve never read of hard proof of this. Do we know the North really has a million soldiers? And is a force of 600,000 in a country of 50 million so small? Canada has a forces of 68,000 for 30 million.

Certainly U.S. forces are a support to South Korea. Yet there are some 29,000 U.S. troops here. This is hardly a massive contingency to a weak military force, particularly when almost every adult male in South Korea has had military service and training.

>It is widely accepted that generous social welfare in the U.S. long discouraged work, marriage, and education: this realization drove the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation.

To me this argument is rather off-topic and lacks support. Who widely accepts this? Sources for this allegation?

#14 Comment By Chris On February 21, 2013 @ 11:50 pm

And what’s the problem with the Chinese arms build-up??

Are they about to invade the US???

The “problem” with the Chinese arms build-up is precisely that the Chinese might finally force the Americans out of the Chinese front yard.

Americans should quit the vomitous moral posturing and just admit the truth. It’s at least understandable.

#15 Comment By Mightypeon On February 22, 2013 @ 5:33 am

To an extent, the USA is providing this “security guarantees” in order to be able to significantly influence a lot of decision making in these countries.
The absence of US bases would mean a more independent policy of these countries, and the US does not want more independent foreign policies in either of them.

Are you certain that, in the case of South Korea, a US base-less South Korea would refuse a Chinese equivalent of the Stalin offer (he offered, to west germany and austria, in the 50s to unify Germany but to keep it neutral, West Germany refused, Austria accepted. Stalin held word)?

Similiar examples for Germany vis a vis Russia exists.

#16 Comment By Carlton Meyer On February 22, 2013 @ 10:09 am

South Korea has five million reservists, which are better trained and equipped that the mythical North Korean army of one million rice farmers wearing military uniforms. Most of their tanks are broke down and they haven’t fuel for the others to go far. Moreover, the mountainous DMZ is fortified.

There is no reason for China to invade its trading partner — South Korea, who it considers a future ally against Japan. War between Japan and China is more likely, and South Korea will remain neutral, and demand we leave our bases ASAP.

#17 Comment By bjk On February 22, 2013 @ 10:24 am

Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean batteries. The North Koreans could inflict nuclear levels of destruction on Seoul and the US and SK couldn’t do much about it for an extended period of time. So sure, the North Koreans don’t have the capacity to roll a tank into Seoul. They don’t need to. The US presence in Seoul ensures that if NK does launch an attack, it need fear complete annihilation at the hands of the US. The only way to make that threat credible is to leave US troops in SK as the so-called tripwire.

#18 Comment By alleged On February 22, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

“…even after repeated North Korean provocations, including the sinking of an ROK warship and bombardment of an ROK island in 2010.”

you sure about this? the north sank a ship (why?) because the us government claims they did? it’s not like they let the north’s experts view the ‘evidence.’ and do those islands really, really belong to the south, simply because some us general arbitrarily drew a line on a map?

#19 Comment By Eileen Kuch On February 22, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

Continuous generous welfare – whether social or military – is debilitating to both donor and recipient. The recipient becomes totally dependent on the largesse; thus, making it difficult for them to act on their own initiatives. Likewise, the donor eventually tires of the “obligation” to provide for this recipient and seeing his own resources diminishing.

This is especially in the case of military welfare. South Korea is far ahead of its northern neighbor economically; yet, it still hesitates to spend more on defense. Why? It’s been dependent on US military presence since the Armistice was signed in 1953, at the end of hostilities between the North and South. Such dependence holds the ROK back from assuming responsibility for its own defense and keeps the US from assuming its own obligations to its own people.

#20 Comment By Tjalf Boris Prößdorf On February 22, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

Mr. LaForte – are you certain your proposal would be legal under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty?

Or is that only a big stick to be used against uppity third world countries?

Which consequences do you foresee, if others react by doing their own bit of proliferation?

#21 Comment By Lurker On February 23, 2013 @ 8:23 am

What about the 400 lb gorilla in the room, North Korea’s entry into the Nuclear Club? It seems that an analysis of the situation should delve into that subject before making recommendations about conventional forces.

Regarding conventional forces and weoponry, why not take a gradual approach? Begin billing the South Koreans for a modest share of the cost of our protection. (Do we not do this now?) Then periodically raise the bill. This gives the South Koreans time to accept that they will eventually be paying full freight, as well as time to make the necessary adaptations. It also would provide the US plenty of room to maneuver in the case of unforeseen consequences, even to include a quick reversal of the policy if required.

#22 Comment By Park On April 15, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

This article is wrong on so many counts, but I’ll point out the two most fundamental glaring mistakes.

(1)South Korea is FAR superior to North Korea in military terms. Look at REALITY and get out of your armchair fantasy. 100 hours is how long it would take for South Korea to completely obliterate North Korea, albeit with huge civilian casualties and economic damage in Seoul.

(2)North Korea is an extremely valuable and convenient pretext for the United States to maintain its military presence (by air, land, and sea) in East Asia. Korea has enormous geopolitical value by virtue of its location next to China, Japan, and Russia. How is it that America continues to presume to be the pre-eminent military power in every single corner of the world, bar none? A superficial review of History makes it obvious that this will never last. America is playing a bad game. A losing game.

#23 Comment By sven the swede On April 19, 2013 @ 10:05 am

The 1,5 billion lb gorilla would be the chineese. You could not win here in the fifties, nor in Vietnam, nor in any other real war(Iraq, Afghanistan)

#24 Comment By jihoon kwak On November 9, 2013 @ 7:19 am

as korean man,I’m going to tell you this. Korean army is not weak, actually it’s quite strong, stronger than most of the other nations, including most of western Europian nations. there is not many countries which can hold American army more than a week, and korea is one of them. The only reason we need U.S army is as our insurance, the insurance to keep chinese away. As long as U.S army stationed in south korea, attacking south korea is like attacking U.S army. So even if the actual war brokes out between north and south, china probably have to reconsider to join this war. And If your are saying that our secret weakness is our number, you need to know that 999 out of 1000 korean man have to go to army, If the war really brokes out, you can say age between 20 to 45 will turn into real army rightaway.