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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Aug. 3)

All News 07:05 August 03, 2021

Security on backburner
Even budget to introduce F-35s slashed to provide COVID relief

The government is said to have slashed 562.9 billion won ($488 million) from the defense budget to secure the money for this year's second supplementary budget.

It cut funds for 42 projects within the main budget in order to expand COVID-19 relief to 88 percent of the population in the second extra budget, among which 22 projects belonged to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

The 22 curtailed projects included costs for the introduction of F-35A stealth fighter jets and the improvement of the identification, friend or foe system and Patriot missiles. These are important weapons to respond to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. Also, funding for a project to introduce maritime patrol aircraft that can detect North Korean submarines was curtailed.

When supplementary budgets were drawn up last year, the defense budget was pared down then too -- by 1.47 trillion won and 298.7 billion won for the second and third extra budgets, respectively. The budget cuts affected projects to acquire core military assets including reconnaissance satellites and Aegis destroyers. Reconnaissance satellites perform a crucial role in monitoring the movements of North Korea's missiles.

One of the most important projects to reinforce the country's combat capabilities is the introduction of F-35A fighter jets.

The National Intelligence Service and police are said to be investigating four activists on charges of campaigning against the introduction of F-35As upon instructions from North Korean spies. They are suspected of taking orders from North Korean spies to hold petitions and one-man protests against the introduction of the stealth fighter jets. The orders allegedly came directly from a department of the North Korean Workers' Party in charge of espionage operations in South Korea. This suggests that the North Korean regime fears the F-35As.

Pyongyang has condemned Seoul's introduction of F-35As. It has also tested short-range ballistic missiles targeting the Cheongju Air Base, where the fighter jets are deployed.

The North responds sensitively because the fighter jets are capable of breaking through its air defense network and destroying targets preemptively. The South needs to make the best use of this strategic asset.

However, the administration under President Moon Jae-in is going in the opposite direction. The budget for the purchase of the fighter jets was reduced by 92 billion won to appropriate the money for this year's second extra budget for COVID-19 relief. The Air Force marked the operational deployment of the stealth fighter jets in a confidential ceremony. Not only Moon, but also the defense minister did not attend the ceremony welcoming the arrival of the country's first two F-35A fighter jets in March 2019.

More concerning is an easygoing perception of the defense budget and security. The military authorities say that the budgets curtailed this year will be reflected in the budget for next year. But delays in the 22 projects will be inevitable.

The Democratic Party of Korea and the Moon administration decided to give COVID-19 relief money even to those people whose incomes were seldom affected by the pandemic. However, they seem to have felt no need to rush for cutting-edge weapons that can deter North Korea's threats. This way of thinking fans concerns over security.

Of course, if the defense budget has unnecessary and nonurgent items, the government must cut costs. But, it is unconvincing that the budgets for essential defense assets such as F-35A fighter jets and related identification friend or foe systems were slashed.

Public distrust in the military has declined over incidents that occurred due to slack discipline, such as mass COVID-19 infections on a naval vessel of the Cheonghae Unit and the suicide of a female Air Force master sergeant after she was sexually assaulted. Worse still, the defense budget is being handled like pocket money set aside for a supplementary budget.

North Korea makes no disguise of its desire to provoke. Despite this, the government and the ruling party are putting security on the backburner to win over voters with cash.

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