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[Editorial] Detached from reality

South Korea’s defense white paper reflects political considerations

South Korea’s latest defense white paper, released this week, has come under criticism for downplaying both the threats from North Korea and the importance of cooperation with Japan.

The 2020 edition of the biennial report drawn up by the Defense Ministry omitted mention of North Korea as an enemy, as did the previous paper. Without referring specifically to the North, it provided an abstract definition of an enemy as a force that threatens or impinges on the sovereignty, territory, people and property of the nation.

The paper also left out an earlier reference to Japan as a partner. In the 2018 version, South Korea and Japan were called “geographically and culturally close neighbors and partners for cooperation toward world peace and prosperity.” But this year’s edition said they are “neighbors for cooperation for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world.”

Such perceptions of North Korea and Japan, which appear far from objective and practical, run the risk of undermining South Korea’s security posture.

The 2020 defense white paper’s failure to refer to the North as an enemy ignores changes in the security environment over the past two years.

When the Defense Ministry issued its previous report, its decision not to identify the North an enemy could be understood as somewhat necessary -- attuned to the reconciliatory mood forged through three rounds of summits between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But Pyongyang has since continued to advance its nuclear arsenal and upgrade its conventional weapons. It demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in June in anger at anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown over the border by North Korean defectors here, and threatened to take military action against the South, identifying it as a foe.

In his report to the eighth congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party last month, Kim called the US the communist regime’s “foremost principal enemy,” vowing to “answer force with force.” He said his country would be making its weapons systems more sophisticated and would develop a nuclear-powered submarine, more destructive warheads and hypersonic missiles.

According to the defense white paper, North Korea has expanded its ballistic missile units and strengthened its special warfare force with modernized equipment and exercises in attacking targets in the South. It revealed a photo of the force training with a mock-up of South Korea’s presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae.

The Defense Ministry’s reluctance to define the North as an enemy despite the facts on the ground seems to stem from its wariness not to be out of step with the Moon administration’s blind pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In what is seen as an out-of-context statement, the defense white paper said the North is expected to focus on achieving economic results, mobilizing all resources available to improve its people’s standard of living by 2022. That is when the totalitarian regime marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, its founding father and the grandfather of its current leader.

Such political considerations appear to underlie the omission of the word “partner” from the paper’s description of Japan. Seoul-Tokyo ties have badly deteriorated over historical issues that have spilled over to the economic realm in recent years.

The Defense Ministry said in the paper that it would respond sternly and seriously to Japan’s distortions of history, to its unjust claims to the Dokdo islets, and to other unilateral and arbitrary measures taken by Tokyo on pending issues with Seoul.

This stance goes against the push by US President Joe Biden’s administration to strengthen trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan, both to counter threats from the North and to keep a rising China in check.

Officials in the Biden administration have placed a renewed emphasis on enhanced collaboration among the US and its two key Asian allies, saying this is crucial to ensure regional peace and stability.

The Defense Ministry may have gone too far in diminishing the importance of cooperation with Japan, as Moon is now seeking to improve bilateral ties by suggesting a more flexible approach to discord over issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.

It should be noted that there can be no space for political considerations in identifying the country’s most immediate security threats and setting priorities for coping with them.