South Korean Military Doctrine

Seoul has consistently sought to modernize its military to defend the country against the threat posed by Pyongyang. The changing security dynamics in Northeast Asia after around 2020 — with an ever more formidable China seeking to exert military clout on its neighbors and a Japan hoping to regain the military prowess it once commanded — have made such concerns increasingly pronounced.

After suffering provocations including the sinking of the Cheonan corvette and North Korea’s bombing of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, the Lee Myung-bak administration announced during its 2012 Security Consultative Meeting with the US that it would be creating a Kill Chain by 2015 based on the concept of “actively deterring” North Korean missiles and long-range artillery. Shortly after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in Sept. 2016, the Park Geun-hye administration filled out the concept with the addition of Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, which includes a plan to eliminate the North Korean leadership.

The term “Korean-style three-axis system,” which South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) advocated as a key strategy for responding to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, will become a historical footnote. On 10 January 2019, the MND announced that it was replacing that term with “system for responding to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction” in order to strengthen South Korea’s strategic deterrence capability.

The first component of this system, called the Kill Chain (a preemptive strike initiated when signs are detected that North Korea is about to launch a nuclear weapon or missile) will be renamed Strategic Target Strike. The second component, called Korean Air and Missile Defense, will be renamed Korean Missile Defense. The third component, called Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (ruthless retaliation to a nuclear or missile strike), will be renamed Overwhelming Response.

South Korea's Ministry of National Defense published its 2018 Defense White Paper 16 January 2019. The white paper is published once every two years to inform the public of defense policies and future policy direction. "This is the first defense white paper published under the incumbent administration. It shows the accomplishments of defense policies over the last two years, and the policy directions of the near future. It details key elements of the main defense issues including Defense Reform 2.0, North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and inter-Korean trust building efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

What is noteworthy about the latest white paper is that it has stopped pointing to North Korea as the enemy of South Korea. The previous white paper has stated that as long as North Korea's nuclear threats exist, the North Korean regime and the North Korean military are the enemy of South Korea. But this latest white paper broadly states that "any entities that threaten and invade South Korea's sovereignty, territory, people and property are deemed as enemy."

However, it still states that North Korea's weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, providing specifics about the North's nuclear and missile capabilities. The paper also says North Korea is estimated to possess about 50 kilograms of plutonium, and a significant amount of highly enriched uranium.

The report clarifies that the South Korean government's so-called "three-axis" system, a three-pronged strategy to counter mainly North Korean threats, using the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense system and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation strategies, will be extended in a way better suited to a long term vision of the nation's defense posture, responding to any sort of security threat.

In addition, the defense report restates the Moon administration's Defense Reform 2.0, a comprehensive government scheme to effectively make the military smarter and stronger by 2022. The report also stresses that the South Korea-U.S. alliance will continue to develop as a complementary, comprehensive alliance, reaffirming the ironclad military partnership. It states South Korea is taking necessary steps to prepare for the transfer of war-time operational control in the near future.

South Korea's Ministry of National Defense revised its Defense Reform Plan 14-30 and reported it 10 February 2017 to acting president and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Under the revised plan, the ministry would establish a nuclear and WMD response center to enhance the military's counter-operability against North Korea's WMD threats.

The military also planned to establish a special operations aviation unit and special infiltration brigade in 2017 that would be in charge of the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation operation plan which, in case of an imminent threat from the North, would conduct a pre-emptive strike on the regime's nuclear and missile facilities.

Another key plan is to merge the 1st and 3rd Armies to establish the Ground Component Command by the end of 2018. The new command will lead frontline units in case of an emergency on the Korean peninsula and will strengthen security on the border.

On 20 September 2016, South Korea's Central Daily website reported that the DPRK nuclear test, the Korean Ministry of Defense launched an independent storm, the so-called "3K" plan, that is, in the existing Kill Chain and South Korean missile defense (KAMD) system coupled with large-scale penalty retaliation (KMPR) program. The plan sequence is as follows. In the first stage, if the DPRK showed provocative signs, the ROK would respond with the destruction of DPRK ballistic missiles on the ground. In the second stage, if North Korea launched a ballistic missile, the ROK would first respond with KAMD interception. And then in the third stage with KMPR large-scale punishment retaliation for the North Korean leadership team. South Korea was quite optimistic about the KMPR effect on North Korea.

In case a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula, the first two to three days of combat will play a decisive role in winning or losing the war. One comes to such a conclusion after summarizing and analyzing the following: North Korea's military strategy toward the South and its military capability including preemptive surprise attacks and short-term blitkrieg using WMDs, artillery units and high-speed in-depth task forces; the current level of ROK-US allied force capability; and the deployment plan of the US augmentation forces.

Under the terms of the 1954 Republic of Korea-United States of America Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States and South Korea agreed to cooperate in defending the security and strategic interests of both countries. South Korea's deployment of army and marine units to South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated its commitment to meeting its obligations under the treaty. By 1990 the United States had stationed 44,500 military personnel in South Korea--a signal to North Korea and other countries in the region that Washington would meet its security commitments to Seoul under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

In the confusion of the early days of the Korean War, Seoul placed its armed forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur as United Nations (UN) commander. This arrangement continued after the armistice. For some twenty-five years, the United Nations Command headquarters, which had no South Korean officers in it, was responsible for the defense of South Korea, with operational control over a majority of the units in the South Korean military. The command was the primary peacetime planning organization for allied response to a North Korean invasion of South Korea and the principal wartime command organization for all South Korean and United States forces involved in defending South Korea.

In 1968 the United States and South Korea held their first annual Security Consultative Meeting. This meeting provided highlevel defense experts from the two countries with an official forum for reassessing the nature of the North Korean threat to South Korea, for agreeing on an overall defense strategy for South Korea, and for outlining the roles of both countries in deterring a North Korean invasion.

In 1978 a bi-national headquarters, the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command (CFC), was created, and the South Korean military units with front-line missions were transferred from the UN Command to the CFC's operational control. The commander in chief of the CFC, a United States military officer, answered ultimately to the national command authorities of the United States and the Republic of Korea.

In 1990 a few hundred United States military personnel were assigned to the United Nations Command headquarters in P'anmunjom, in the DMZ, and were responsible for representing the United States at meetings of the Military Armistice Commission. Because the Seoul and P'yongyang governments had never negotiated a peace agreement after the Korean War, the sometimes shaky 1953 armistice concluded between the United Nations Command, North Korea, and China remained the only formal channel for handling complaints about violations of the truce.

There were 32,000 United States Army personnel in South Korea in 1990; most were assigned to the Eighth Army, which included the Second Infantry Division, the Seventeenth Aviation Brigade, and other detachments deployed north of Seoul as part of the joint South Korean-United States forward defense strategy. If a conflict were to occur, the Second Infantry Division would be expected to serve as a reserve force for the South Korean army on one of the main invasion routes between the DMZ and Seoul. United States Army personnel with command or planning responsibilities for combat units also were assigned to the headquarters of the CFC and to the headquarters of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Field Army, of which the Second Infantry Division was the main American component. The remaining United States Army personnel were assigned to support the missions of selected United States and South Korean combat units, serving primarily in communications, logistics, and training positions.

There were 12,000 United States Air Force personnel in South Korea in 1990. They were assigned to units responsible for early warning, air interception, close air support of United States and South Korean ground forces, combat support, aircraft maintenance, and the transportation of personnel and supplies from the United States, Japan, and other United States military installations in the Pacific. The Seventh Air Force, headquartered at Osan Air Base, was the command element for all United States Air Force organizations in South Korea. United States Lockheed U-2 high- altitude reconnaissance and South Korean Grumman E-2C early warning aircraft patrolled the North Korean border and monitored the Soviet Union's air and naval activities in the Sea of Japan area. Advanced F-16 fighter aircraft were used by tactical fighter squadrons based at Osan and Kunsan. These squadrons operated alongside South Korean air force tactical squadrons in both air interception and close air support roles. South Korea and the United States jointly managed the South Korean tactical air control system, which had wartime responsibility for North Korean airspace and the entire South Korean coastline. The United States Military Airlift Command was responsible for transporting United States military personnel, weapons, and supplies from the United States and locations in the Pacific to South Korea.

United States Navy and United States Marine Corps personnel in South Korea consisted of about 500 officers and enlisted personnel who occupied critical staff and liaison positions in the CFC. The United States Pacific Command in Hawaii frequently deployed units of the United States Pacific Fleet, based in Japan, and units of the marine corps, based in Okinawa and other locations in the Pacific, to South Korea for joint training exercises, particularly Team Spirit, held every spring to promote South Korean-United States military cooperation and readiness. During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the United States Seventh Fleet operated in the Sea of Japan and was assigned specific missions to assist units of the CFC in discouraging P'yongyang from attempting to disrupt the Olympic Games.

To execute the US "win-win strategy" and support the United Nations Command (UNC) and ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) operation plans, the US augementation forces deployment plan on the Korean peninsula is set at all times. This plan mainly includes in-Korea forces, pre-planned time-phased deployment forces, augmentation forces, and foreign support forces. The plan centers on the forces under the US Pacific Command, and part of the forces from the US and other theaters are included as well. The size of the US augmentation forces, which include ground, naval, air and marine forces, will amount to at least 640 thousand troops, and these forces possess fighters, support aircraft, and aircraft carrier battle groups and amphibious flotillas equipped with the latest fighters. If a crisis does occur on the Korean peninsula, the US augmentation forces units will be deployed after the approval of the National Supreme Command and under the command of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. After deployment, the augmentation forces will go through the process of unit integration, and then be committed to specific operations.

The National Defense Reform Committee (NDRC) was set up in April 1998. Devoted to implementing the Five-Year Defense Reform Project (1998-2003), it produced a report three months later. Its remit was to suggest ways of making the military more efficient, transparent and cost-conscious, in order to strengthen the ROK defense posture "to meet the full spectrum of threats that may emerge in future." Under the slogan "building an elite force," the long-term policy was for a reduction of the nation's 690,000-strong military force to between 200,000 and 300,000 personnel by 2015.

In January 2005, the MND began to analyze problems lying in the past defense reform efforts and identify unreasonable and inefficient factors inherent in the Korean defense system. Based on such analyses, the MND prepared the Defense Reform Plan 2020 while referring to the defense reform cases of major foreign countries.

The essence of the long-term vision of the Defense Reform 2020 is to realize the self-reliant and advanced defense which can assure peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula. The ROK will be able to achieve a self-reliant military force and establish an advanced defense management system through the Defense Reform 2020 by completing technology-intensive military structure and force systems to be able to actively cope with future security situations and future warfare.

The MND drew up the defense reform draft through the Defense Reform Committee, organized on June 1, 2005, within the MND, and reported the defense reform basic plan to President Roh Moo-hyun on September 1, 2005. At the same time, the Defense Reform Plan was released to the general public. The goal of the defense reform was defined to "build an advanced, elite, and strong force and to work together with the people."

The four key points of the Defense Reform 2020 are as follows:

  • First, the ROK armed forces will build their military structure and force systems that best befit characteristics of modern warfare.
  • Second, the civilian workforce in the MND will be expanded, while the military will concentrate on the fulfillment of combat missions.
  • Third, the defense management system will be innovated to promote information and science for the military force in a highly efficient and low cost manner.
  • Fourth, the defense system will be transformed into a highly efficient one by improving the barrack culture and overall national defense.

The MND will establish a comprehensive plan, taking the security environment and conditions into account. The reform will be gradually implemented in phases, with the goal of completion by the year 2020. The following contents are the key tasks for the Defense Reform 2020. The ROK military will strengthen the advanced military capability, create a high quality elite force, and develop a force equipped with science and technology. Until 2020, the ROK military will reduce from 680,000 troops to 500,000 troops gradually.

Several aspects of the security relationship are changing as the U.S. moves from a leading to a supporting role. In 2004, agreement was reached on the return of the Yongsan base in Seoul--as well as a number of other U.S. bases--to the R.O.K. and the eventual relocation of all U.S. forces to south of the Han River. In addition, the U.S. and R.O.K. agreed to move 12,500 of the 37,500 U.S. troops out of Korea by 2008. At the same time U.S. troops are being redeployed from Korea, the U.S. will bolster combined U.S./R.O.K. deterrent and defense capabilities by providing $11 billion in force enhancements in Korea and at regional facilities over the next four years.

In September 2006, the Presidents of the United States and the Republic of Korea agreed that South Korea should assume the lead for its own defense. In early 2007, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and ROK Minister of National Defense determined that South Korea will assume wartime operational control of its forces on April 17, 2012. U.S. Forces Korea will transform into a new jointwarfighting command, provisionally described as Korea Command (KORCOM). KORCOM will be a fully capable and resourced complementary U.S. joint warfighting command in a doctrinally supporting role to the ROK JFC.

The United States and the Republic of Korea have agreed to transition from the U.S.-led Alliance warfighting Combined Forces Command, to an arrangement where U.S. forces are in a doctrinally supporting role to the ROK military. The ROK military will assume responsibility for commanding and controlling the warfightingreadiness and operations of their own forces in wartime for the first time since the end of the Korean War. Towards this end, the US military will form an independent U.S. Headquarters to command U.S. forces serving in Korea during wartime, while the Koreans will form a Korean national warfighting headquarters referred to by them provisionally as the ROK Joint Forces Command (JFC). This transition is referred to by many as "OPCON Transfer" and will take place on 17 April 2012. The current U.S. led combined warfighting command, Combined Forces Command, will be disestablished. The transition will convey a strong message to all regional actors of continuing solidarity with our Korean ally, while providing us an opportunity to strengthen our close and cooperative relationship with the Republic of Korea. With OPCON transition, one of the long standing perceived infringements on ROK sovereignty and self determination will beremoved along with a lightning rod for political dissent and anti-American sentiment.

The South Korean Defense Reform 2020 states that the present forces of 680,000 will be reduced to an elite force of 500,000 by the year 2020. The 548,000-strong army will be reduced to 371,000, whereas the 68,000-strong navy will be reduced to 64,000, while the 65,000-strong air force will remain the same. During the first phase between 2006 and 2010, 60,000 privates in the army will be cut back and 20,000 NCOs (non-commissioned officers) will be added to fill the shortage of skilled privates. In the following phase between 2011 and 2015, an additional 60,000 troops will be reduced, to be followed by downsizing of an additional 80,000, leaving a total of 500,000. The 3 million reserve troops will be cut down by half -- 1.5 million.

The Lee administration announced that it would revise the "Defense Reform 2020" plan established by the last administration. According to the new plan, weapons systems will be upgraded before troop reductions. This indicates that: 1) the government will increase and advance defense investments; and 2) the reform may not be completed by 2020 due to a lack of resources. The Ministry of National Defense unveiled a draft revision of the defense reform 24 November 2008. Arms buildup plans under the Defense Reform 2020 were expected to be readjusted. That meant the military will readjust its arms acquisition and restructuring schemes to deal with an imminent threat, namely North Korea. Because of the 2008 financial crisis, the military was not getting the required budgetary support form the government to carry out the original plan. According to the revised version acquiring required weapons systems will proceed prior to troop cuts and streamlining of the military structure.

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