SEOUL (REUTERS) – When South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived this week at Seoul’s largest weapons expo ever in the back seat of a fighter jet, he did not present the image of a leader bent on making peace with North Korea.
Under Mr Moon, South Korea has not only continued many of the military programmes approved under his conservative predecessors, but pushed already large defence budgets to new highs, negotiated an end to US restrictions on its missile programme, and announced plans for the nation’s first aircraft carrier, among a plethora of other advanced weapons.
Whatever the outcome of Mr Moon’s last-ditch efforts to achieve a breakthrough with North Korea before he leaves office in May, that military build-up appears a lasting legacy.
It seems at odds with the liberal president’s drive to foster inter-Korean peace, and Pyongyang has cited the arms buildup as an example of hostile duplicity by Seoul and its allies in Washington.
But among Mr Moon’s main motivations – and one that he appears to have believed is worth the risk of provoking the North – was his desire to build more autonomy within South Korea’s alliance with the United States and eventually win operational control of allied forces in the event of a war, according to officials and analysts.
“When this government unveiled F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after buying them from the US, I wondered why they would do that even as they want to champion inter-Korean engagement, knowing the North hates it so much,” one diplomatic source in Seoul said.
“But I later realised that in Moon’s concept of self-reliant defence, they do what they plan to do, come rain or come shine.”
Since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the US military has retained control over hundreds of thousands of South Korean forces alongside the roughly 28,500 American troops in the country if another war breaks out.
Mr Moon made obtaining control of the joint forces a major goal, but a delayed review amid the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues has made it impossible in what is left of his term.
Nevertheless, Mr Moon “seems to have decided to continue laying the groundwork for a future transfer through military buildup, no matter who succeeds him”, the source said, speaking on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivity.
His push for more military power has been influenced by other factors, most prominently a genuine concern about countering North Korea’s growing threats, officials said.
It has also driven new business to South Korea’s defence contractors, boosted national prestige and helped Mr Moon blunt criticism from conservatives that his outreach to North Korea might endanger the South and the US alliance.
‘Strength for peace’
To Mr Moon, having a strong military is a natural part of making peace with North Korea from a position of strength, with reduced reliance on the US, a South Korean military source said.
“Moon’s push brings important suggestions that South Korea is now ready to take the lead in establishing peace on the peninsula on its own, not as part of allied forces,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“As we promote strength-based peace, this government has not given up on cross-border ties,” the source added.
“They will strive to bring the North back to the table till the end, and have raised the issue of ending the war in line with that effort.”
Mr Moon called for declaring a formal end to the war in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, saying it would help reopen stalled talks aimed at denuclearising North Korea in return for US sanctions relief.
In recent years, the North has publicly tested several short-range missiles that analysts say are designed to evade South Korea’s defences.
It has matched several moves by Seoul, including holding a duelling arms show and launching a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just weeks after South Korea had conducted its own SLBM test.
Pyongyang has repeatedly complained about South Korea’s weapons acquisitions and joint drills with the Americans, accusing Seoul of applying double standards over military development while destabilising the peninsula with its own buildup.
But Pyongyang has also shown willingness to overlook or downplay the South’s military moves when it sees fit, Seoul officials said.
“There was no strong backlash, though South Korean weapons are obviously not welcome to the North, and I think it’s their strategy to pretend to be a normal state and legitimise their own weapons development,” the first source said.
“But the arms race is headed in a quite dangerous direction, with no arms control mechanisms or confidence-building measures whatsoever between both sides.”