A Republic of Korea Marine stands in formation during Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 at Hat Yao beach, Rayong, Thailand. Cobra Gold is a multinational military training exercise that includes South Korea and the United States. Photo by Sgt. Matthew Troyer/U.S. Marine Corps
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Even as South Korea aggressively calls for unification with North Korea, the government in Seoul has significantly bolstered its military strength, purchasing warplanes, anti-missile systems and other costly weapons over the past year.
South Korea inked its biggest-ever arms purchase in September with a 7.3 trillion won (U.S. $7.04 billion) deal for 40 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. In November, the state military procurement agency announced it would further enhance its air defenses and buy four aerial tankers worth 1.4 trillion won (U.S. $1.3 billion) in addition to setting another 1.5 trillion won (U.S. $1.4 billion) to upgrading its missile system with PAC-3 interceptor missiles.
Trillions more have been spent to boost other capabilities, such as army tanks and navy frigates, as well as developing better monitoring systems, including acquiring unmanned drones and launching spy satellites.
Seoul's defense budget has grown rapidly for the past several years with 2015 seeing the highest year-to-year growth since 2011. The state military budget is set for 37.4 trillion won (U.S. $33.6 billion), which makes up roughly 10 percent of the country's entire budget and is up 4.9 percent from the previous year.
The figure is catching up to the defense spending of the United States and China, which have devoted 19.3 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively, of their total government budget toward the military.
"The reason that we are building up our military is to counter North Korea's attacks and provocations," a military source close to the South Korean Defense Ministry said.
"The purchases are to protect, not to pre-emptively attack North Korea or start a war. But we are only able to maintain peace when we are more advanced militarily, which will also fend off North Korea from attacking."
The military source cited the attacks in 2010 by North Korea, including the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island bombing, to emphasize that military spending is justified to ensure a defense against surprise attacks.
Analysts in South Korea agree that the government needs to bulk up its military, noting Pyongyang's firepower.
"Even though it's not often acknowledged, North Korea has nuclear weapons with successful long-range missile technology. So this military buildup is needed in defense of North Korea," said political science professor Yang Seung-ham of Yonsei University.
But Yang also argued that the move could deteriorate the opportunity for better relations with North Korea, which many experts say are the best they've seen in five years.
"The Park administration is rapidly purchasing many advanced weaponry for military security, which does not help in easing inter-Korean tensions," he said of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
In addition, although Park has pushed reunification policies with North Korea to be one of her government's top priorities – including establishing a "unification preparation committee" – many argue that the administration's current approach does not advance that goal.
"We can't say the Park government is doing a good job opening up dialogue and preparing for unification because the two countries are reverting back to a state of competing for military preparedness. This is a problem," Yang said.
South Korea is emerging as one of Asia's top weapons exporters.
In 2014, defense exports hit a record high of $3.6 billion, which is the largest the country had distributed since the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) was established in 2006. Major deals including a $1.2 billion contract to build six corvettes, or small warships, for the Royal Malaysian Navy and a $420 million bid by the Philippines for 12 FA-50 fighter jets.
According to a recent IHS Balance of Trade report, South Korea is forecast to generate more revenue from defense exports than China by 2016. The report comes at a time when the country's largest companies, such as Samsung Electronics, are experiencing steady declines in market value.
Some analysts suggest South Korea is beefing up its military power to establish a new industry rather than simply to deter North Korea. Among them is Kim Jong-dae, chief editor of Defense 21 magazine.
"It's obvious that South Korea's military buildup will cause North Korea to react negatively," Kim said. "But this works because the government is using the justification that it has to protect from North Korea's threat. That isn't right, and in the truth, the [country's] military-industrial complex is a major aspect."
Seoul's diplomatic pursuits have often incorporated reinforcing its military-industrial complex, undertaking joint ventures of defense production such as naval shipbuilding with countries including Pakistan and Azerbaijan.
However, some have gone as far to label South Korea a mercenary state for its weapons trade.
Kim Jae-yeon of the disbanded United Progressive Party released a report showing that from 2011 to 2014 South Korea exported 3.2 million tear gas shells, which governments used against protests – main importers were Bahrain and Turkey.
The report said the country is gaining a reputation for being a "violent suppression arms exporter."
Further, Hyundai Heavy Industries is just one of the companies known to export to Israel excavators, which are used to demolish Palestinian houses.
Many also attribute South Korea's growing military industry to corruption within the government.
Only public officials and military personnel currently staff DAPA instead of civilian experts. Cases of bribery, most recently involving the 3,500-ton Tongyeong, were brought center stage when the ship was rendered incapable of helping rescue operations during the Sewol ferry sinking. The Tongyeong had faulty parts. A former Navy officer – who was in charge of selecting military suppliers – was indicted on charges of forging documents for the selection of the sonar system.
South Korea is not the only country in East Asia to be ramping up its military. In January, Japan approved its largest-ever defense budget that has Tokyo spending roughly $41.9 billion for 2016 while China's defense budget for 2015 is set at $131.6 billion, which is more than South Korea and Japan combined. With the region's historical and territorial disputes, the growing military powers are raising some concerns.
"Most Asian countries are currently striving to become military powers, thus pursuing conservative military policies. If this continues, a military arms race is inevitable, which will jeopardize the regional stability in East Asia," Kim said.
But South Korea asserts that it is fortifying its military prowess solely to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula.
"Our country is strengthening the military to defend from North Korean attacks and for the lives of the South Korean people. We are not doing it to heighten military tension in the region, whatsoever," said the military source.
The source further supported this assertion by mentioning South Korea's involvement in the United Nations.
"Our Defense Ministry strives for regional peace and worldwide peace."