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South Korea

Chapter 5. National Security


Signal Fire Tower, Suwon Castle, sited with a view of the royal villa. The tower offered an important means of communication.

DURING SOUTH KOREA'S Fifth Republic (1981-87), the modernization of the armed forces was one of the highest priorities of Chun Doo Hwan's administration. As a result, when Chun's term in office ended, he left behind one of the bestequipped military forces in Asia. Army units had been reorganized and equipped with indigenously produced weapons. The improvement of defense fortifications and supply systems along the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) ensured that ground forces were better prepared to defend South Korea than at any time since the end of the Korean War (1950-53). An automated air defense system, jointly managed by the army and air force, reduced the possibility that South Korea would be caught unprepared in the event of a surprise attack. As a by-product of rapid industrialization and coproduction agreements with United States and West European firms, South Korean aircraft producers and shipbuilders were able to supply most of the country's needs for modern fighter aircraft, helicopters, coastal patrol vessels, and other equipment required by the air force and navy.

A tenuous peace held throughout the 1980s on the Korean Peninsula--tenuous because the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in P'yongyang continued to expand its armed forces and to deploy two-thirds of all military units--army, navy, and air force--in a combat-ready status close to the DMZ. Moreover, North Korean-directed terrorist activity against South Korea threatened to provoke a renewal of hostilities. In 1980 P'yongyang and Seoul each had about 600,000 military personnel on active duty. From 1980 to 1985 the North Korean armed forces increased by 150,000 people, whereas the South Korean armed forces expanded modestly by about 5,000 people. In 1990 North Korea's armed forces had 1.4 million military personnel on active duty. South Korea's armed forces had 650,000 persons on active duty and another 1,240,000 persons in the reserves.

Under Chun's leadership, Seoul cautiously promoted a peaceful dialogue with North Korea and encouraged the expansion of northsouth contacts in the early 1980s; P'yongyang remained uninterested in these overtures and on at least two occasions perpetrated terrorist attacks that increased tension on the Korean Peninsula. The primary purpose of South Korean peace proposals in 1981 and 1982 was to realize a summit meeting between Chun and North Korean president Kim Il Sung. South Korean leaders hoped that the establishment of a government-to- government dialogue would lead to agreements reducing the size of the armed forces of both countries and establishing the framework for a peace plan to replace the 1953 armistice.

In October 1983, a P'yongyang-directed terrorist attack resulted in the cessation of the peace process. A bomb that exploded in Rangoon, Burma, killed twenty-one people, including seventeen high-ranking officials of the South Korean government then visiting Burma. The bombing was planned and executed by personnel drawn from North Korean army units. Chun's decision not to retaliate with force set a precedent that won him praise from abroad and sympathy for his unpopular regime at home. Seoul's reliance on diplomatic and economic measures to counter terrorism rather than a small-scale attack on a North Korean target, which could be used as an excuse for beginning an all-out war, effectively mobilized international public opinion to limit trade and other contacts with North Korea.

Another terrorist attack occurred in September 1987 when two North Korean saboteurs placed a bomb on a Seoul-bound Korean Air Boeing 707 aircraft carrying ninety-five passengers and twenty crew members. The plane exploded over the Andaman Sea (south of Burma), killing all aboard. Chun, following the precedent set in 1983 after the Rangoon bombing, ruled out military retaliation and asked the international community to condemn North Korea for its continued belligerence.

South Korea also experienced an increase in politically motivated domestic violence during the 1980s. For the first time, a small, vocal segment of the population persistently challenged former and current military leaders, including Chun, to stay out of politics. The 1980 Kwangju rebellion was used by disenfranchised politicians and disillusioned radical students as a rallying cry. Moderates were encouraged to pressure Chun to change the constitution and public security laws to guarantee that soldiers, police, and the intelligence services would never again be turned against the people. Seoul's claims that the radical student organizations were fronts for North Korea gradually lost credibility, particularly in 1985, when student participation in the political process contributed to the high proportion of votes cast for the New Korea Democratic Party in that year's parliamentary elections. Public indignation concerning increasingly brutal attacks on dissidents by police became a major political issue in January 1987 when Pak Chongch 'ol, a Seoul National University student, was tortured and subsequently died while in police custody. From March through June 1987, combat police units of the Korean National Police responsible for crowd control were constantly on the move as antigovernment demonstrations, sometimes including tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, became everyday occurrences in Seoul, Pusan, Kwangju, and other cities.

After the inauguration of Roh Tae Woo as president in February 1988, attention once again reverted to North Korea as the foremost threat to security. Roh made good his promise to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators from around the world who came to Seoul for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Japan and the United States provided direct security assistance during this period, the former by closely monitoring the thousands of airline flights and visitors passing through Tokyo and other Japanese cities en route to the event, the latter by deploying additional air, naval, and security units in and around South Korea before and during the Olympics. Following the Olympics, Roh relaxed restrictions on South Korean contacts with North Koreans, gave in to increasing demands for social spending, and acknowledged growing skepticism about the threat from P'yongyang, all of which resulted in reducing the percentage of the budget spent on defense. These policies were designed to encourage reciprocal moves by North Korea and to reduce tension between the two Koreas.

In 1989 Roh publicized plans to restructure the South Korean armed forces to enhance their defensive capabilities. Seoul also planned to acquire new types of technologically sophisticated weapons to prepare the armed forces for warfare and defense in the twenty-first century.

Data as of June 1990

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