On orders from a U.S. instructor, Corporal Kim Jong Chan leaps out of a Black Hawk helicopter hovering near the world’s most fortified border. The South Korean soldier rappels 90 feet down, rehearsing for the day he may have to go behind North Korean lines in the event of a war.
“It’s not often that South Koreans get the chance to participate in one of the hardest training courses of the world’s most powerful army,” Kim said before completing the U.S. Air Assault School training last month at Camp Casey, 25 kilometers (16 miles) south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. “We hold our own drills, but the U.S. definitely offers better equipment and training.”
Soldiers like Kim will lead front line defenses against any North Korean attack for the first time in six decades, after the U.S. hands to South Korea wartime control of its own troops in 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stoked tensions by testing an atomic device, threatening a nuclear strike against the U.S., and declaring a “state of war.”
South Korean President Park Geun Hye will have to shoulder added defense funding to secure the border at a time when economic growth is slowing and welfare demands are escalating. Military proficiency may also be an issue: Kim was the only one of nine South Korea soldiers who passed the air assault course.
“South Korea has and will assume a larger role for the conventional defense of South Korea but remains reliant on the U.S. and the alliance with Washington for complete deterrence,” said Bruce Klingner, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea desk and an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “There are always shortcomings and room for improvement for the South Korean military.”
American generals have held wartime command of South Korean troops since the 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a peace treaty. As of Dec. 1, 2015, South Korea will spearhead combat operations while the U.S. plays a supporting role.
A successful transfer will require South Korea to improve its surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and its ability to conduct precision strikes, according to Korea National Defense University professor Kwon Heon Chul.
Paying for that won’t be easy. While Park and her predecessor Lee Myung Bak have declined to estimate the expense, a 2005 plan by President Roh Moo Hyun predicted a 15-year cost of 621 trillion won ($556 billion), which would require annual defense spending increases of around 10 percent, more than double the current pace.
Defense outlays this year will rise 4.2 percent to 34.3 trillion won, or 10 percent of the total budget. At the same time, Park has pledged to spend 135 trillion won over the next five years on welfare programs without raising taxes while facing a 12 trillion won revenue shortfall this year.
Park today urged officials to “speedily” draft a stimulus bill to create more jobs and help the economy recover from its slowest expansion in three years last year.
“There is a downward trend for potential economic expansion,” No Hoon, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said in a Jan. 15 report. “Added costs with demand for more extensive welfare programs could put pressure on the defense budget to be cut.”
The transfer comes as the U.S. struggles to balance a $41 billion mandatory defense budget cut with President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
Tensions on the peninsula are the highest at least since 2010. North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon in February and said annual U.S.-South Korea drills that go until the end of April had put the region on the brink of war. Kim’s government today prevented South Korean workers from entering a jointly run industrial park, a day after saying it will restart all facilities at a nuclear site shut by a 2007 disarmament deal.
North Korea has more than 250 long-range artillery systems capable of striking Seoul, according to U.S. estimates. Kim’s 1.2 million military is almost double that of the South’s 639,000. In response to the threats, the U.S. has sent F-22 Raptor fighters to South Korea as well as B-2 and B-52 bombers, both capable of launching nuclear weapons.
While North Korea’s “bellicose rhetoric” highlights a regional risk, South Korea’s “robust alliance with the U.S” ensures its credit stability, Moody’s Investors Service analysts Thomas Byrne and Steffen Dyck wrote in a report yesterday.
The escalation has brought calls for delaying the command transfer from retired South Korean generals and Nam Jae Joon, Park’s newly-appointed head of the National Intelligence Service. South Korea and the U.S. postponed the original April 2012 handover following the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say everything South Korea has spent so far on defense since the Korean War has been to prepare for the transfer,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at Korea Defense and Security Forum. “But if that had been enough, we would have done it by now.”
South Korean Captain Jeong Yi Hun, watching Corporal Kim’s training last month, had no doubt his country is up to the task.
“The Americans may have the fancy Black Hawks, but we have something they don’t -- fearlessness,” Jeong said. “We aren’t scared to jump to our death in these lands.”