Legislation pending in Congress to facilitate foreign military
sales to South Korea would enhance the security of a key U.S. ally
and strengthen the bilateral military relationship. The
U.S.-Republic of Korea Defense Cooperation Improvement Act of 2008
(H.R. 5443/S.1846) would grant the same preferential treatment
for foreign military sales to South Korea as currently applies to
members of NATO, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand ("NATO+3").
By recognizing the strategic importance of South Korea to U.S.
security objectives in Asia, the bill would also remedy a
long-overdue disparity in Washington's characterization of its
military allies. General B. B. Bell, the commander of U.S. Forces
Korea, characterized South Korea's absence from the NATO+3 list as
"bizarre and strange" in his congressional testimony on March 12. South
Korea has been a stalwart defender of democracy in Asia and stands
poised to assume a larger role in international counter-terrorism
and peacekeeping operations.
Growing Need for South Korean
Despite perceived progress in the Six Party Talks to eliminate
North Korea's nuclear weapons, South Korea remains threatened by
Pyongyang's conventional military, chemical warfare, and missile
forces. Pyongyang has yet to agree to negotiation terms for
eliminating its estimated six to 12 nuclear weapons. North Korea
has forward-deployed 70 percent of its ground forces within 90
miles of the demilitarized zone. In addition to three conventional
corps alongside the DMZ, Pyongyang has deployed two mechanized
corps, an armor corps, and an artillery corps. Moreover, North
Korea has an estimated 600 Scud missiles that can target all of
South Korea as well as 200 No-Dong missiles that can strike
South Korea will assume a greater responsibility for its
national defense as a result of the decision to return wartime
operational command authority of South Korean forces from the
United Nations Command to Seoul in 2012. The U.S. is decreasing its
troop level in South Korea from 38,000 to 25,000 by the end of
2008. That will be accompanied by $11 billion in U.S. force
upgrades to compensate for any degradation in deterrent
capabilities brought on by the troop decrease. Despite U.S.
reassurances, Seoul remains concerned that Washington may
contemplate further troop reductions below the promised level of
In a separate development, Seoul is pursuing an ambitious $292
billion program to transform its military forces by 2020. Both of
these developments will require extensive modernization of South
Korean combat forces as well as reconnaissance and communication
assets. These factors will drive a significant expansion of South
Korean defense procurement.
However, some have questioned whether a perceived shortfall in
South Korea's defense spending will hurt its ability to meet
current and future needs. Moreover, newly elected President Lee
Myung-bak may reverse South Korea's long-standing opposition to
participating in an integrated ballistic missile defense system.
The previous two progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and
Roh Moo-hyun avoided participation because they feared it would
aggravate North Korea and might undermine Seoul's engagement policy
Alleviating U.S. Restrictions on
While South Korea's burgeoning military industry may fulfill
some of its growing defense requirements, Seoul will still need to
purchase extensive foreign weapons and support systems to fully
address its security needs. South Korean purchases of U.S. military
equipment would enhance the interoperability of U.S. and South
Korean military forces and strengthen their deterrent
In 2007, Seoul purchased more than $3.7 billion worth of U.S.
defense items--more than any NATO+3 member country. Indeed, South
Korea is one of the largest customers for U.S. military equipment.
During the past 10 years, it has spent almost $7 billion on U.S.
defense articles and services--more than any NATO country. Yet, for
foreign military sales, South Korea is currently rated below the
five former Warsaw Pact countries and three former Soviet states
that joined NATO. Such treatment of a stalwart ally of 59 years is
In granting South Korea preferential treatment for U.S. defense
sales, H.R. 5443/S.1846 would raise the threshold for congressional
notification from $14 million to $25 million and reduce
congressional review time from 30 days to 15 days.
In recent years, South Korea has perceived that the U.S. valued
its military alliance with Tokyo more than its relationship with
Seoul. To some degree this was brought on by President Roh's
statements and policies suggesting a decreased South Korean
emphasis on the bilateral relationship. Yet the Bush Administration
has repeatedly made statements that highlighted the importance of
Japan, but not South Korea, to U.S. strategic interests.
U.S. policymakers should take advantage of the opportunity
provided by the election of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea's
president. Lee has advocated repairing the strained bilateral
relationship, strengthening South Korea's military, and assuming a
greater international role. South Korea's ministers of defense and
foreign affairs, as well as its National Assembly, have formally
requested an upgrade in its foreign military sales treatment for 11
years. This legislation presents an opportunity to enhance defense
interoperability and send a clear signal that Washington values and
recognizes the vital contribution of South Korea to peace and
stability in Asia.
Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in
the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
5443, The U.S.-Republic of Korea Defense Cooperation Improvement
Act of 2008, is co-authored by Representatives Edward Royce (R-CA)
and Ellen Tauscher (D-CA). S.1846 is authored by Senator Kit Bond
General B. B. Bell, testimony before the House
Armed Services Committee, March 12, 2008.