Monday, May 31, 2010

NYT on beefing up ROK's naval defenses, with US help

From the "bring 'em home" crowd, we often hear that South Korea is now such a rich country that its defense should be left to itself (as if South Korea is unlike the rest of the world, where strong military alliances are not the stuff of effective deterrence). South Koreans' mandatory military service of about two years and the sizable chunk of GDP spent on defense are pooh-poohed in order to make this point.

But the sinking of the Chonan has bared for all to see that South Korea is still vulnerable to an enemy willing to nip at its heels or whatever body part it sees as vulnerable, and that means that more help from the US may be needed.

That's the message of this article in the New York Times, which suggests that South Korea's vulnerability to these North Korean attacks may not be due to an unwillingness to expend labor and capital to keep the military strong, but instead occurred despite actions intended to maintain a formidable military:
Surprised by how easily a South Korean warship was sunk by what an international investigation concluded was a North Korean torpedo fired from a midget submarine, senior American officials say they are planning a long-term program to plug major gaps in the South’s naval defenses.

They said the sinking revealed that years of spending and training had still left the country vulnerable to surprise attack.

The discovery of the weaknesses in South Korea caught officials in both countries off guard. As South Korea has rocketed into the ranks of the world’s top economies, it has invested billions of dollars to bolster its defenses and to help refine one of the oldest war plans in the Pentagon’s library: a joint strategy with the United States to repel and defeat a North Korean invasion.

But the shallow waters where the attack occurred are patrolled only by South Korea’s navy, and South Korean officials confirmed in interviews that the sinking of the warship, the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, revealed a gap that the American military must help address.

The United States — pledged to defend its ally but stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — would be drawn into any conflict. But it has been able to reduce its forces on the Korean Peninsula by relying on South Korea’s increased military spending. Senior Pentagon officials stress that firepower sent to the region by warplanes and warships would more than compensate for the drop in American troop levels there in the event of war.

But the attack was evidence, the officials say, of how North Korea has compensated for the fact that it is so bankrupt that it can no longer train its troops or buy the technology needed to fight a conventional war. So it has instead invested heavily in stealthy, hard-to-detect technologies that can inflict significant damage, even if it could not win a sustained conflict.
I am a firm believer in the Pax Americana, convinced that the US's unique role in Northeast Asia remains a necessary element for the peace, prosperity, and democratic values that have taken hold in this region. So when "bring 'em home" advocates talk about South Korea as a defense freeloader, I point out the statistics and I also suggest that rather than pulling US forces out of Korea, the better choice would be to have South Korea play a better role assisting the US military in places such as pirate-infested waters or Afghanistan and other hot spots. But right now I'm beginning to wonder myself if even that is a tad premature.

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