The Defense Ministry on Wednesday submitted a W31.61 trillion (US$1=W1,220) defense budget for 2011 to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, up 6.9 percent from this year's W29.56 trillion.
When the Roh Moo-hyun administration agreed with the U.S. in February 2007 to take back full operational control of South Korean forces, it estimated that the transfer would cost W151 trillion until 2012 and W621 trillion by 2020. To guarantee national security once the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is dismantled, that would mean spending 20 times as much as the annual defense budget by 2020. To secure those funds, the government must either collect W12.5 million in tax from each Korean or drastically slash the education and welfare budgets.
The Roh administration sold the takeover of full operational control as a giant step toward independence, but it failed to mention how much money that would cost.
On Sunday, President Lee Myung-bak and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama agreed to postpone the transfer and consequent dissolution of the CFC from April 17, 2012 to Dec. 1, 2015. The government says there will be no more postponements after that. Retired generals point out that South Korean forces still rely on the U.S. for more than 90 percent of intelligence gathering about the North Korean military. The country has five years and five months to modernize military command, control, communication and information systems, boost defense against the North's long-range artillery, and figure out how to repulse assaults by North Korean special forces and sudden air attacks.
Seoul cannot ask for another postponement. When the Roh administration proposed taking over full operational control without securing a firm security guarantee from the U.S. at a time when Washington was trying to reduce its responsibilities on the Korean Peninsula, it put short-term political gain before national security. But now the damage is done, and any further delay would only play into the hands of left-wingers who say that South Korea needs the U.S. to hold its hand at all times.
Already the opposition parties are slamming the postponement as a surrender of sovereignty. In case of an attack on a member of NATO, which consists of the U.S. and 27 European countries, other members offer military support under the operational control of the NATO commander, who is an American general. By the logic of the Leftists, that means 27 European countries have surrendered their sovereignty.
Still, the government will have to proceed on the assumption that December 2015 is the final deadline for the handover -- not because the Leftists are right, but because South Korea-U.S. security cooperation must be renewed for the 21st century so that the country can take responsibility for its own security, and because South Koreans must learn responsibility and self-confidence.
The government must look carefully at exactly how much money is needed under the most efficient plan possible. During the transition, the aim should be to improve the whole Seoul-Washington security cooperation, including the mutual defense treaty. Seoul and Washington must exchange frank views about the security and economic burden each can shoulder.