Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Chung-in Moon  |  15 February, 2022

National Security Policy Should Be Based On One Thing: Facts

Image: Shutterstock (Yavyav)

This article was first published by Hankyoreh on 7 February 2022.

The claims Yoon Suk-yeol is making about Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy need a fact check

In both South Korea and elsewhere in recent years, subjective speculation appears to be prevailing over facts as the boundary between objective truth and public opinion blurs. In the US, for example, conspiracy theories such as climate denial, the “anti-vax” movement, and claims about election rigging have had a bigger political impact than judicial decisions and pronouncements by the government and credible research institutions. Such trends impede healthy discussion of policy and make it harder to craft reasonable policies.

This phenomenon is becoming more noticeable as political disputes inevitably heat up in Korea’s current presidential campaign. One example is the foreign policy and national security platform that Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate for the People Power Party, announced on January 24.

We need not criticise Yoon’s platform itself, since campaign platforms have always expressed a candidate’s subjective will. But the “facts” that undergird Yoon’s platform are debatable — including the assumptions that the Korean Peninsula peace process has been a “complete failure” under the rule of the Democratic Party, that Korea’s “three-axis” national defense program has been “stripped of its substance,” and that the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) alliance with the US has “collapsed” over the past five years. A fact check is needed here.

There’s no doubt that President Moon Jae-in’s Korean Peninsula peace process has failed to achieve its intended results. Regardless of the reasons, the goal of achieving a peace regime and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula has not been realised. The detonation of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, the shooting of an official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries in the water, and the seven-missile test launches that North Korea carried out last month alone are major blots on Moon’s initiative.

But can the peace process really be written off as a “complete failure”? The North Koreans carried out 27 incursions and 237 local provocations in the years before the Moon administration, from 2010 to 2017. But aside from a shooting at a guard post in 2020, there have been no incursions or local provocations at the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, since South and North Korea signed the Comprehensive Military Agreement on Sept. 19, 2018. That suggests the agreement has helped manage or prevent the kind of armed clashes and loss of life that would represent a decisive rupture between the two sides.

I also take issue with Yoon’s criticism that the three-axis system has been stripped of substance. Following Pyongyang’s bellicose behaviour in 2017, the Moon administration has taken active steps to counter the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. Moon has spent a total of 8.28 trillion won on acquiring the Cheongung II, L-SAM and long-range artillery as well as on upgrading Patriot batteries so as to improve Korea’s interception capability—that is, missile defense—a critical component of the three-axis system.

Korea has also greatly expanded its strategic strike assets, which are a key element of an “offensive defense.” The defense budget allocated 18.11 trillion won for acquiring F-35A stealth fighters, the Hyunmoo-2 and Hyunmoo-3 ship-to-ground ballistic and cruise missiles, the Taurus air-to-ground guided missile and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs.

The Moon administration has also markedly improved Korea’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Another 4.47 trillion won went to acquiring military spy satellites and the Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft and to strengthening the capabilities of the Baekdu signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection aircraft. What evidence does Yoon have for declaring the three-axis system void of substance when the Moon administration has invested 30.86 trillion won on defense against nuclear weapons and missiles while cooperating closely with the US?

Similar observations can be made about the alliance between South Korea and the US. There have been some areas of disagreement between the two sides about the sequence of steps needed to address the North Korean nuclear issue or the degree of cooperation in countering China. But it wouldn’t be a normal relationship between sovereign states if there were no daylight between them on such sensitive matters. In contrast, it’s undeniable that the basic framework of the ROK-US alliance was upgraded during the two countries’ summit last May from a military alliance to a comprehensive alliance covering technological and economic matters.

Yoon has disparaged the coalition’s defense readiness, claiming the two sides aren’t holding drills or exercises. But aside from skipping the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise in the second half of 2018—around when the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang took place—the South Korean and American militaries haven’t called off a single exercise or drill in the past five years. In fact, the Foal Eagle exercise went ahead even in 2018, the year of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, despite being delayed until April.

It’s true that the field mobility exercises that had been concentrated in a single period were scaled back and distributed throughout the year, but that was initiated by the unilateral decision of former US President Donald Trump and maintained subsequently because of COVID-19. Given these considerations, is it really possible to claim that the alliance has crumbled?

Indeed, there was no reason for the Moon administration to proactively refuse joint military exercises or drills, considering that Moon’s goal was to acquire wartime operational control (OPCON) of coalition forces before leaving office. If anything, I would say that the Moon administration’s obsession with relations with the US limited its ability to make good on its agreements with the North.

The political winds are raging, and there’s nothing unusual about the presidential candidate of the leading opposition party criticising the ruling party.

But criticism ought to be based on objective facts and a minimum sense of responsibility for governance. Extreme distortions of reality not only goad North Korea into miscalculations and further polarise domestic politics, but they also serve as shackles that limit reasonable policy-making, regardless of who wins the presidential election.

Interpretations may differ, but facts are the facts. Acknowledging that is the true beginning of solid national security.

Chung-in Moon is the Chairman of the Sejong Institute. He is a member of the Toda International Research Advisory Council.