S. Korea’s Chaotic, Corrupt Defense Policy Driven by Fear

Following an eight-month investigation that ended in July, a South Korean joint task force on corruption in defense contracts reported that W980.9 billion ($867.7 million at current exchange rates) worth of defense contracts in South Korea have been affected by corruption in the last seven years.

This amounts to a full 8.9 percent of this year’s Defense Capability Improvement Cost, which totals W11.14 trillion. But the task force only investigated corruption in the contracting and delivery process. It did not examine the major venues of defense contract corruption. Significant corruption occurs in the supply decision in the policy setting stage, when purchasing decisions on certain weapons are made. Any corrupt, but still competent, arms dealer will focus his lobbying on high-ranking decision makers of the supply chain.

It takes mere administrative efforts to get through the process of contracting and delivery. For example, let’s consider a case involving the Electronic Warfare Training System (EWTS). An arms dealer purchased W50 billion worth of EWTS from a Turkish manufacturer and sold it to the South Korean Air Force for W100 billion, pocketing W50 billion for himself.

South Korea had originally intended to develop this system itself, but an unnamed high-ranking official intervened and altered the domestic development policy and instead decided to purchase the system from abroad. He then either aided or allowed a new contract to be made with the arms dealer in question. The task force’s investigation, however, only reported the embezzlement of the W50 billion and didn’t discuss the policy shift from domestic development to purchasing from abroad.

Ninety percent of defense contract corruption occurs in the supply decision itself. The task force was forced to admit that they “could not investigate the weapons supply decision as it was beyond our investigation ability” when they presented their findings. Only “unlucky” weapons were investigated, those with which the mere administrative process of contracting and delivery failed, and mistakenly revealed a malfunction with the purchased weapons.

If corruption does exist in the supply decision, or if the decisions were poorly made, the sheer magnitude of it would be astronomical. Huge weapons purchases in South Korea have their origins in aggravated public fear due to an emphasis on uncertain threats from North Korea. Let’s look at a major example. South Korea has a nine-stage defense scheme of combined forces – Air Force, Navy and Army in a series of sequential actions against a North Korean Special Forces invasion of the South Korean coastal line on high-speed hovercraft.

One day, the media suddenly focuses on the fact that North Korean Special Forces number 200,000 men. The aggravated fear that arose from this scenario resulted in the South Korean Army’s purchase of W3 trillion worth of US Apache helicopters. Yet, in reality, there is no country in the world capable of invading an enemy’s rear area with 200,000 special forces just in a few hours. The media highlighted simply the number of special forces without mentioning any transportation means of invasion.

In the meantime, the South Korean Air Force underscored the fact that North’s long range artillery, which used to be in front of mountain ridges aiming south, have been moved to the back side of the mountain and located in a tunnel. They wanted to highlight that now it is impossible to strike the North’s long range artillery from the front; destroying them is only possible from the rear of the mountain ridges, after covertly penetrating enemy territory. As a result, they argued for the purchase of the not-yet-developed F-35 stealth fighter.

The repercussions are severe, as we are now witnessing. The F-15SE was chosen as South Korea’s next-generation fighter, the F-X, in 2013. Later that year in September, the previous decision was changed to the F-35, without any further discussions. The F-35 was weaker a candidate than the F-15SE in almost every aspect except for stealth capability. Its arms capability, speed and range were weak, and its development was incomplete. But the supply decision was made to purchase 40 fighters for W7.3 trillion despite its weak performance, the fact that its development is not yet complete, its high price, and the unfavorable technology transfer conditions.

The purchase was rationalized on the sole fact that North Korea’s 40-years-old artillery moved from the front of the mountain ridges to their back. This particular deal was the focus of a parliamentary inspection of the administration in South Korea this October.

Take yet another case. Last year March, North Korea’s undersized drone appeared over the capital Seoul, and Baengnyeongdo, one of the northernmost islands in South Korea. At first, the military didn’t consider it to be a threat. After all, it was a crude drone that did not seem to be capable of carrying even five kilograms of bombs. But the media began to focus attention on the drone. It spread the wild fantasy that this 15-kilogram drone could carry 20 to 30 kilograms of bombs and even biochemical weapons.

The Blue House came around to these stories, and the military followed suit, changing their classification of the situation to a “severe threat.” This led to the supply decision to acquire low altitude drone detection radar, a system that no country in the world has deployed.

The sudden emergence of fear of North Korea in the South is a massive source of business for weapons purchases. Last March, there was a missile test that seemed to increase the launch angle of the mid-range North Korean No Dong missile in order to use it as a short-range missile. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of US forces in South Korea, highlighted this in the media, and used it as a justification to introduce the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Until now, there has been no case in the world where a mid-range missile can be used at short-range merely by adjusting its launch angle. The range of ballistic missiles is determined by the amount of fuel used, not by the launch angle.

Yet another strange incident occurred in May 2014, when North Korea released a video purporting to show that they have succeeded in launching a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "They have not gotten as far as their clever video editors and spinmeisters would have us believe," dismissing the images on the video as the product of “video editing.”

North Korea’s SLBM footage was, in fact, contrived. Even if it was not fabricated, it was only a rudimentary test, and thus not an actual threat. Yet, Han Min-goo, the Minister of National Defense, who appeared before the National Assembly at the time, said that a North Korean SLBM program is “four to five years away,” suggesting that it would become a serious threat in the near future. In these terms, it was inevitable that astronomical financial resources would be invested in reshuffling South Korea’s Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. Up to now, it was a missile defense structure only focused on the frontlines facing the North, while now its scope should widen to cover the rear as well.

It is highly likely that the “kill chain,” or the Chamsu(decapitation) strategy, which enables an effective neutralization of the threat of a nuclear launch by eliminating Kim Jung Un within a 25 minute time frame, would serve as justification for the introduction of new weapons without an understanding of the plan’s actual effectiveness. It took 10 years from the 9/11 attacks for the US to kill Osama Bin Laden, and it took eight months after the outbreak of the Iraq War to capture Saddam Hussein. Who exactly determined the effectiveness of this preemptive strike plan that could supposedly eliminate supreme commander Kim Jung Un in 25 minutes before the outbreak of war?

If such a plan were to be announced, when South Korea shows just a little signs of preemptive strikes, the possibility of North Korea launching nuclear missiles without delay increases. In the past, against such a similar US plan of eliminating the Soviet leadership, the Soviet Union released a corresponding concept of “nuclear missiles will be fired even if the Soviet leadership is eliminated.” This is called the Dead Hand Strategy, which was classified as the most reckless and imprudent scenario in nuclear war.

The current National Security Chief Kim Kwan-jin, when he was Minister of Defense, pledged to promptly develop a KAMD and kill-chain by even mobilizing the government’s reserve fund. Yet, these are extreme strategies whose effectiveness cannot be verified. But such an extreme military strategy can serve as excellent justification to introduce jet fighters, missiles, early warning aircraft, destroyers, and anti-aircraft defense systems in South Korea.

The process described, without holding military rationality and transparency, is linked to a fierce form of competition among national defense groups in South Korea. In the far future, this will develop into a vicious cycle, becoming the background of defense corruption by introducing rubbish weapons. In this case, it is confusing whether weapons are being introduced to ensure national security, or whether national security is being manipulated to support the introduction of weapons. I cannot help suspecting that it is the current state of South Korea’s national defense that some get-rich-quick forces, who have quickly penetrated the business side of South Korea’s decisions to introduce new weapons, will instigate another corruption scheme.

Although recently questioned in the media, the Ministry of National Defense promoted the F-X project and was unable to obtain the core technology required in the development of KF-X (Korean F-X). The blind objective of introducing the as-yet-undeveloped F-35 sacrificed mid-to-long term considerations about the future of South Korea’s aviation defense industry. Again, security is restricted to the short-term goal of immediate weapons purchasing. If a long-term perspective of strengthening the national security basis is lost, South Korea is no better than a terminally ill country.

South Korea’s military policy needs to clarify its essence, being whether weapons are bought for security, or if it molds its security to purchase weapons.

Jong-dae Kim is the Editor-in-Chief of Defense 21+. This is reprinted courtesy of the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation