Armed Forces Overview: The main branches of the South Korean military are the army, navy, air force, and National Maritime Police (Coast Guard). There are 687,000 troops serving on active duty, of whom approximately 159,000 are conscripts. Another 4.5 million are in the reserves. The army has 560,000 personnel, the air force 64,700, the navy 63,000, and the maritime police 4,500. A civilian defense corps numbers 3.5 million.
Foreign Military Relations: South Korea’s major military relationship is with the United States, which maintains approximately 35,000 troops in South Korea. Additional U.S. forces are available in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet, and U.S. island bases in the Pacific. Since the Korean War (known as the “6–25 War” in South Korea, 1950–53), the United States has assumed significant responsibility for assuring South Korea’s security. Since 1978, the Republic of Korea/United States Combined Forces Command (ROK-US CFC) has assumed primary responsibility for defending South Korea from outside attack. The CFC has operational control over more than 600,000 South Korean and U.S. troops and directs joint training exercises. It is under the command of a four-star U.S. general, with a four-star South Korean army general as deputy commander. In 2005, 93 percent of the military personnel at the DMZ were South Korean forces. The United Nations Command (UNC), established in 1951 with the United States as its executive agent and 21 allied members, continues to monitor the 1953 armistice agreement. Fifteen of the original 21 members participated in the UNC Military Armistice Commission in 2005.
External Threat: The South Korean government regards North Korea as the major threat to peninsular stability. North Korea has the fourth largest military force in the world, and the largest special operations, submarine, and artillery forces in the world. Whereas in 1981 North Korea had 40 percent of its armed forces deployed in an offensive mode between the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and P’y4ngyang, by 1998 that level had risen to 65 percent, and it stood at 70 percent in 2005. Military planners in South Korea expect no more than two days’ warning of an imminent attack by North Korea. In 1998 and 2003, North Korea launched missiles over the Sea of Japan (or East Sea), an act that raised serious concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In February 2005, North Korea admitted it had nuclear weapons capability, and it is estimated that North Korea might have one or two actual nuclear weapons and enough plutonium harvested for about nine weapons. In May 2005, another missile test was conducted over the Sea of Japan. The difficulty of predicting the actions of the North Korean leadership, the lack of reliable information from North Korea, and shifts in U.S. policy regarding the North remain stumbling blocks to reducing tensions on the peninsula.
Defense Budget: In 2004 South Korea’s defense budget was US$16.4 billion, which represents approximately 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 16 percent of the total budget (roughly in line with the previous two years). Defense spending for 2004 is up from US$14.6 billion in 2003, US$13.2 billion in 2002, US$11.8 billion in 2001, US$12.8 billion in 2000, and US$11.6 billion in 1999.
Major Military Units: The army has 3 mechanized infantry divisions, 19 infantry divisions, 2 independent infantry brigades, 7 special forces brigades, 3 counter-infiltration brigades, 3 surface-to-surface missile battalions, 3 airborne artillery brigades, 5 surface-to-air missile battalions, and 1 aviation command with 1 air assault brigade. The reserves have one army headquarters with 23 infantry divisions. The navy has three commands: Tonghae (East Sea), P’y4ngt’aek (Yellow Sea), and Chinhae (Korea Strait) and bases in Chinhae (Headquarters), Cheju, Mokp’o, Mukho, P’ohang, Pusan, P’y4ngt’aek, and Tonghae. The marines (part of the navy) have two divisions. The air force has four commands, a tactical airlift wing, and a composite wing.
Major Military Equipment: The army has 1,000 main battle tanks, 40 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 2,480 armored personnel carriers, approximately 4,500 towed and self-propelled artillery pieces, 185 multiple rocket launchers, 6,000 mortars, 58 antitank guns, 600 air defense guns, 2 surface-to-surface missiles, 1,090 surface-to-air missiles, 117 attack helicopters, 18 transport helicopters, and 283 utility helicopters. The navy has 20 diesel submarines, 6 destroyers, 9 frigates, 28 corvettes, 5 missile craft, 15 mine warfare vessels, 12 amphibious vessels, 75 inshore patrol boats, 16 combat aircraft, and 43 armed helicopters. The marines (part of the navy) have 60 main battle tanks and 60 assault amphibian vehicles. The air force has a total of 538 combat aircraft with 153 F–16C/D, 185 F–5E/F, 130 F–4D/E, 22 combat-capable trainers, 20 forward air control aircraft, 27 reconnaissance aircraft, 25 helicopters, 34 tactical airlift aircraft, 203 training aircraft, and 103 unmanned aerial vehicles. The air force has no armed helicopters.
Military Service: Military service is mandatory for all South Korean males, with conscription at 18 years of age. The term of service in the army is 26 months and 30 in the navy and air force. The presence of women in the South Korean military since the end of the Korean War has been limited, both by constitutional and cultural restraints. In the early 1990s, the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished, and women were integrated into the various branches of the armed forces. The South Korean armed forces plan to recruit women to a level of 5 percent of the total officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the three services by 2020.
Paramilitary Forces: South Korea has a National Maritime Police (Coast Guard) force of approximately 4,500 on active duty. Another 3.5 million South Korean reserves form the civilian defense corps.
Foreign Military Forces: Approximately 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
Foreign Military Forces Abroad: In August 2004, the 2,800-strong Korea Zaytun Division for Peace and Reconstruction in Iraq arrived in Irbil, in northern Iraq. There are also 205 South Korean troops participating in Operation Enduring Freedom in Kyrgyzstan. South Korean troops also have taken part in United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan (UNAMA), East Timor (UNMISET), Georgia (UNOMIG), India/Pakistan (UNMOGIP), Liberia (UNMIL), and Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Police: The National Korean Police Force is composed of the Headquarters of the National Police Agency, the Central Police Organization, 14 provincial police agencies, 231 police stations, 2,930 branch offices, and other affiliated institutes, including the National Police College, Police Comprehensive Academy, Central Police Training School, Driver's Licensing Agency, and National Police Hospital. In 2003 the National Police Force had 92,165 employees. The police commissioner serves under the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs.
Internal Threat: The National Security Law continues to define as a threat to domestic security acts such as listening to North Korean radio broadcasts or reading books published in North Korea, suggesting that North Korean interference and propaganda efforts in South Korean affairs are still regarded as a major internal threat.
Terrorism: Historically, some of the worst acts of terrorism in South Korea have been the work of North Korea and the military dictatorships that ruled South Korea for large portions of the post-Korean War era. In 1987 North Korea was accused of being behind the bombing of Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 858.
Human Rights: The South Korean government generally respects the human rights of its citizens. However, it bears noting that physical and verbal abuse of detainees continues among police and prison personnel. Human rights organizations also have argued that the National Security Law (NSL) continues to be used to curtail freedom of speech and of the press, peaceful assembly and association, and free travel. Currently, some 800 conscientious objectors convicted under the NSL, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain imprisoned. Many public-sector employees do not enjoy the right of association, and efforts to organize unions have met with harassment and arrest. Incidences of domestic violence remain high. Sexual harassment and disparities in pay between men and women exist. Rape and child abuse also continue to be serious problems. The Republic of Korea is still a significant country of origin, transit, and destination for trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, for the sex trade and domestic servitude. Although illegal, prostitution remains widespread. No executions have been carried out in South Korea since 1998; a bill was introduced in 2001 to abolish the death penalty, but despite fairly widespread and bipartisan support in the legislature, the bill stalled in deliberations. At the end of 2003, there were 1,670 refugees and asylum seekers in South Korea, most North Korean.