Military Spending and the Arms Race on the Korean Peninsula

By Moon, Chung-in; Lee, Sangkeun | Asian Perspective, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Military Spending and the Arms Race on the Korean Peninsula


Moon, Chung-in, Lee, Sangkeun, Asian Perspective


The two Koreas have failed to produce any meaningful achievements in military confidence-building measures, arms control, and arms reduction. Moreover, South Korea's continued competitive edge over the North in conventional weapons capability has driven North Korea to mitigate its inferiority by pursuing the dangerous course of nuclear armament. This article attempts to understand the evolving nature of military spending and the arms race on the Korean peninsula. The first section analyzes and evaluates the dynamics of military spending and the arms race. The second section empirically compares patterns of military spending between the two Koreas, while the third compares their conventional defense capabilities. The article then traces how the arms race in conventional weapons has escalated into new dimensions of military confrontation involving North Korea's nuclearization and South Korea's countervailing measures. Finally, the determinants of military spending and the arms race on the Korean peninsula are examined and ways are suggested to manage them.

Key words: East Asian security, South Korea, North Korea, military spending, arms race, nuclear weapons

Military Spending and Arms Racing: Analytical Considerations

Why do countries elect to engage in arms races despite their high costs and associated risks? Among many suggested explanations, the most pronounced rationalization is framed around external threats, of which Louis P. Richardson's action-reaction model seems most persuasive.1 According to his model, a country's defense spending is by and large determined by hostile military actions, the size of defense spending, and the accumulation of weapons by rival countries. The model has been further refined by adding a "grievance" variable. Even without such explicit interaction effects, a country is most likely to increase its defense spending when and if there is a grievance emanating from protracted hostility based on incompatible goals and ideological differences.

Central to the Richardson model is threat perception, which may not be necessarily actor-specific. Countries can build defense capabilities and increase military spending even in the absence of explicit enemies because the anticipation of strategic uncertainty resulting from a reconfiguration of global and regional power can induce some countries to undertake preemptive defensive buildups. For example, though neither China nor Japan faces any specific sources of threat, both have historically engaged in a subtle form of arms racing, especially in naval power. Alternatively, during the decade of engagement with North Korea, the progressive Roh Moo-hyun government increased its defense spending to respond to uncertain regional security dynamics such as China's rise and Japan's move toward a normal state.2 A changing regional security environment can thus serve as an important input variable in shaping the dynamic of defense spending and arms races.

An equally important determinant of defense spending is domestic politics. Three factors are typically considered in this context. First is the bureaucratic dimension. Allison and Halperin, for instance, hypothesized that defense spending is a function of bureaucratic rivalry among competing agencies.3 Competition among the armed services for a greater share of the budget has been one of the most pronounced aspects of American defense budget politics. Nevertheless, in most countries, the defense budget tends to be subject to bureaucratic incrementalism, which allows for an automatic annual increase as long as atypical political or economic constraints and/or opportunities do not arise.

A second component is the influence of interest groups on patterns of defense spending. For example, the military-industrial complex and its lobbying efforts have traditionally had a major impact on the share and composition of the defense budget in the United States.4 Although most countries may not be subject to such political pressures, having neither global security commitments nor defense industrial bases, vested domestic interests can be a salient factor in determining the nature and direction of defense spending. …

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