SEOUL - The Republic of Korea (ROK) government is having second thoughts about its long-term defense reform plan, as the country grapples with the mysterious sinking of its warship Cheonan for which its northern rival, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is widely believed to be responsible.
President Lee Myung-bak recently called on the military to reconsider the so-called Defense Reform 2020, a comprehensive reform blueprint drawn up by Lee's liberal predecessor Roh Moo- hyun in 2005, and fundamentally reassess "external threats" - an indirect reference to the DPRK.
"Witnessing the Cheonan incident, I honestly got worried about our military though I've been positive about the military ( capabilities). While we've been too focused on economic development during the past six post-war decades, our awareness of national security seems to have decreased," the president said at the first-ever meeting of the Commission for National Security Review, an ad hoc presidential task force set up in response to the naval incident.
"We need to resolve every issue, starting from the Defense Reform 2020, so that things would reflect the reality," the president said.
The new commission is considering increasing the defense budget from the current 2.76 percent of gross domestic product to more than 3.5 percent of GDP over the next five years, according to local media.
The initial reform plan, already modified once by the Lee administration last year, was aimed at reducing troop strength and instead bolstering high-tech weapons system, based on the assumption that threats the DPRK poses on the Korean peninsula would diminish by 2020 while potential threats from other countries could materialize.
It earmarked 620 trillion won ($560 billion) for enhancing military capabilities and gradually cut the number of troops to 500,000 from the current 680,000 by 2020. Lee's revision in June last year, however, trimmed the budget to 600 trillion won and raised the troop level to 540,000.
The original modernization plan presumed improving inter-Korean ties and looked beyond the traditional role of the Republic of Korea military - deterring Pyongyang's military provocation - so that it can become a regional military power. Indeed, relations between the DPRK and ROK, still technically at war with each other following the 1950-53 Korean War, prospered under late President Roh, who succeeded his predecessor Kim Dae-jung's engagement policies toward its often prickly northern neighbor.
Lee's mention of "external threats" is of particular importance as it comes at a time when investigators are about to wrap up their weeks of probe into the mysterious sinking in late March of the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan into waters near a tense border with the DPRK. Local media here interpreted his urge as a hint that the ongoing investigations could have concluded that Pyongyang indeed had a hand in what is said to be ROK's one of the worst peacetime tragedies.
A group of civilian and military experts looking into the incident already announced that the sinking was likely caused by a powerful external explosion at a close range, possibly caused by a torpedo or sea mine detonation. The final results are expected to come out before May 20.
(China Daily 05/15/2010 page8)