ANALYSIS-Moon’s pressure for South Korea’s military independence could resonate well beyond his presidency

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Band Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, October 22 (Reuters)When South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived this week at the largest weapons exhibition ever held in Seoul in the backseat of a fighter jet, he did not present the image of a leader determined to make peace with North Korea.

Under Moon, South Korea not only pursued many of the military programs approved under its conservative predecessors, but also pushed already large defense budgets to new heights, negotiated an end to US restrictions on its missile program, and announced plans for the country’s first aircraft carrier. , among a plethora of other advanced weapons.

Whatever the result of Moon’s ultimate efforts to achieve a breakthrough with North Korea before he leaves office in May, this military build-up appears to be a lasting legacy.

This seems at odds with the liberal president’s desire to foster inter-Korean peace, and Pyongyang cited the build-up of weapons as an example of hostile duplicity by Seoul and its allies in Washington.

But among Moon’s main motivations – and one he seems to have believed is worth the risk of provoking the North – was his desire to build more autonomy within South Korea’s alliance with the United States and ultimately to gain operational control over Allied forces in the event of a war, officials and analysts say.

“When this government unveiled F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after buying them from the United States, I wondered why they would do this even when they wanted to defend the inter-Korean engagement, knowing that the North hates it. so much, “a diplomatic source told Seoul. “But I later realized that in Moon’s self-defense concept, they’re doing what they intend to do, rain or shine.”

Since the Korean War of 1950-1953, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the U.S. military has retained control of hundreds of thousands of South Korean forces alongside some 28,500 troops. Americans present in the country if another war breaks out.

Moon has made gaining control of the joint forces a major goal, but a deferred exam amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues made it impossible for the rest of his tenure.

Nonetheless, Moon “appears to have decided to continue laying the groundwork for a future transfer through military reinforcement, regardless of who succeeds him,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity in because of diplomatic sensitivity.

Its drive to increase its military might has been influenced by other factors, including a genuine concern to counter growing threats from North Korea, officials said.

It also drove new business for South Korean defense contractors, bolstered national prestige, and helped Moon blunt criticism from conservatives that his approach in North Korea could endanger the southern alliance and the United States. United States.

“FORCE FOR PEACE”

For Moon, having a strong army is a natural part of peace with North Korea from a position of strength, with reduced dependence on the United States, a South Korean military source said.

“Moon’s push brings important suggestions that South Korea is now ready to take the initiative to establish peace on the peninsula on its own, and not as part of allied forces,” the official said. , speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. .

“As we promote a peace based on force, this government has not abandoned cross-border relations,” the source added. “They will strive to bring the North to the table until the end and have raised the issue of the end of the war in accordance with that effort.”

Moon called for the official declaration of the end of the war in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, saying it would help reopen stalled talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea in return for US sanctions relief.

In recent years, the North has publicly tested several short-range missiles that analysts say are designed to evade South Korea’s defenses. He matched several Seoul moves, including holding a dueling weapons show and the launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just weeks after South Korea led its own SLBM test.

Pyongyang has repeatedly complained about South Korea’s arms acquisitions and joint exercises with the Americans, accusing Seoul of applying double standards on military development while destabilizing the peninsula with its own accumulation.

But Pyongyang has also shown a willingness to ignore or downplay the southern military actions whenever it sees fit, Seoul officials said.

“There was no violent reaction, although South Korean weapons are obviously not welcome in the North, and I think it is their strategy to pretend to be a normal state and legitimize their own development. weapons, ”the first source said. “But the arms race is heading in a rather dangerous direction, without any arms control mechanism or any confidence building between the two sides.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; writing by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

((JoshSmith1@thomsonreuters.com;))

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