South Korea brings public into defense planning process

South Korea brings public into defense planning process

Felix Kim

Greater participation by the public in defense budgeting moved from pledge to reality in South Korea as the country’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) held its first town hall meeting on May 11, 2018, at the Defense Convention Center in Seoul.

Hosted by Defense Minister Song Young-moo, pictured, the meeting involved MND officials, 20 specialists, 100 Soldiers and 100 members of the public. Song emphasized that his ministry was open to “any good ideas missed from the Defense Reform 2.0,” referring to the reform program for the country’s Armed Forces designed to improve conditions for troops.

The meeting focused on six pre-selected national proposals, according to a statement by the MND, specifically:

  • providing padded winter sweaters for all Soldiers.
  • supporting a budget for emergency equipment/material at commanders’ discretion.
  • buying clothes for reserve Soldiers.
  • increasing the budget for the training of reserve troops.
  • training cyber warfare experts.
  • increasing available funds to transport Soldiers on sick leave.

Yun Ji-won, professor of diplomacy and security division at Pyeongtaek University, characterized the budget items as “force maintenance,” which directly interests Soldiers, their families and “ordinary people.”

“This town hall meeting took place for the first time after longtime preparations of the Defense Ministry,” Yun said. “The national defense budget is very sensitive, as it concerns national security. But people need to know how the budget is set aside for such areas as the force maintenance, which deals with Soldiers’ welfare and daily lives.”

Yun acknowledged that public meetings cannot deal with sensitive issues like weapons or security topics, but added that the meeting received positive reviews and that she anticipates more to follow.

“I was surprised at what Soldiers and other people want the most,” she said. “At the meeting, many Soldiers were interested in their health and human rights. Most of them asked the ministry to provide all the Soldiers with padded winter jackets and masks when the level of the fine dust rises. Such requests are directly related to their health. The ministry should pay attention to their voices because the improvement of this problem helps Soldiers enhance their intangible combat power.”

Yun expects many of the meeting’s proposals to be reflected in the MND’s budget planning. She said she hopes the MND will continue to inform the public about what proposals are incorporated into the budget and why others failed to make the cut.

With the population of military-age young people on the decline in South Korea, it is increasingly important that Soldiers believe their service is worthwhile, Yun observed.

In his town hall speech, Song implied that this public engagement will endure.

“We hope this forum will bring more public attention to the national defense budget,” he said. “We will continue to make efforts to increase people’s understanding of the budget and to spend it efficiently, by being faithful to our mission of providing information about the national defense budget.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.