South Korea Doubles Down on Military Independence

South Korea Doubles Down on Military Independence

The Asian country, which is one of the last Cold War battlefields in the world, has a bold ambition to be one of the world’s leading weapons powerhouses.

During a visit to a KAI weapons plant in Sacheon, South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol called the defense industry the “new growth engine” for the country’s economy. Yoon also promised to “build an ecosystem that will shift the defense industry from a sector centered on internal demand to one that is centered on exports.” The centerpiece of this program, the KF-21, was developed in conjunction with Indonesia. KAI bills it as a 4.5-generation fighter, meaning its capabilities fall between fourth-generation fighters — the mainstream type in service globally — and cutting-edge fifth-generation fighters.

Lucrative deals are already in progress or in the works with Poland, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and other nations. Over the past several months, stock prices for KAI and Hyundai Rotem have climbed roughly 40%. Hanwha Aerospace, a competitor, has done even better, with stock prices up 50%.

The Situation in South Korea

Everything everywhere has changed a lot since the 1980s. South Korea has changed much more radically than some other nations.

For several decades after the Korean War in the early 1950s, the nation struggled under authoritarian leadership. In 1987, the June Democratic Struggle, which consisted of mass demonstrations, ushered in the Sixth Republic, the first legitimate South Korean republic since 1948. After that, the country took off economically and politically. Today, South Korea has the fifth-highest HDI (human development index) in Oceania. It is also one of the Four Asian Tigers. The other three are Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Furthermore, the country survived a major political scandal in the mid-2010s. Prosecutors accused  Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president, of massive corruption. Under intense public pressure, officials impeached and removed her from office. A South Korean court later sentenced her to 24 years in prison.

That is all the good news for South Korea, or at least most of it. Now, on to the bad news in modern South Korea.

In 2010, old rivals South and North Korea almost came to blows once again. South Korea claimed a North Korean submarine sank one of its ships. 46 South Korean sailors died. Later that year, an intense North Korean artillery barrage killed four people on Yeonpyeong Island. South Korea basically did nothing in response to these attacks. 

Public anger over this unresponsiveness probably led to the scrutiny of Park and the current drive to transform South Korea into a non-nuclear military superpower. Additionally, lingering hostilities probably make permanent peace with the North impossible, despite the efforts of multiple politicians in the South.

Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, further distanced his country from the United States, which has guarded the border since 1953. Since the alliance is in flux, the roles of private military contractors in South Korea are also in flux.

Contractors in South Korea

For many years, private military contractors have supported the Eighth Army, America’s primary deterrent force in South Korea. Now, it appears their mission may be changing.

Military support usually involves combat support. Someone must man checkpoints, guard installations, and escort VIPs on tours. To regular servicemembers, these assignments are basically punishment. But private military contractors embrace these roles. Contractors also provide security by escorting supply convoys.

Before the 1980s, most of these jobs were illegal. The Government Accounting Office, which writes most of the checks, strictly interpreted the 1898 Anti-Pinkerton Act. This obscure law, which President Benjamin Harrison signed in the wake of violent strike-busting incidents, prohibited the U.S. government from hiring Pinkerton detectives or other private military contractors. Restrictions eased somewhat shortly thereafter when the U.S. became an overseas power. Restrictions eased even further during mid-century conflicts in Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, the APA remained in effect.

Then, based on an obscure footnote in an obscure Supreme Court case, the GAO reversed course. It began allowing the DoD and other government agencies to freely employ contractors, as long as these contractors didn’t participate in offensive operations.

As South Korea’s military capacities expand, contractors will probably move into more industrial support roles. These are roles most contractors are very comfortable with.

Advanced defense systems require advanced maintenance. Contractors are well-suited for this role. In many cases, private military contractors work for the companies that designed, built, and deployed these systems. So, contractors know them inside and out.

Security contractors still have a place in the new South Korea. As mentioned, tensions with the North continue simmering. If the Americans partially withdraw, someone must pick up the slack. The South Korean government doesn’t want to imperil any more of its citizens than necessary. So, instead of the Republic of Korea’s armed forces, armed contractors will probably watch large stretches of the border. The South Koreans are seemingly willing to deal with occasional harassment. A resumption of fighting is another story.

Injury Compensation Available

Overseas contractors in all support positions risk trauma injuries and occupational diseases. The Defense Base Act pays reasonably necessary medical bills in both situations.

Falls are the most common construction trauma injuries. Most countries do not have strict workplace safety laws. Even if they do, inspectors are usually not interested in the occupational safety of American contractors. Therefore, such trauma injuries are especially common in dangerous foreign workplaces.

Making matters worse, many war zones only have rudimentary medical facilities. For the best possible care after a serious injury, victims must be med-evacuated, often to a hospital on a different continent. So, by the time these victims get adequate treatment, their conditions have deteriorated.

As for occupational diseases, repetitive stress injuries usually top this category. Most construction workers spend considerable time bending, kneeling, stooping, and so on. That is especially true for the specialty construction contractors, like electricians, who dominate foreign worksites.

Most people do not run to the doctor the moment their backs or elbows hurt. Once again, as in the case of a trauma injury, their conditions deteriorate and become harder to treat.

The Defense Base Act provides maximum compensation in these situations. Even if the victim did not see a doctor straightaway or a pre-existing condition contributed to the illness or injury, the DBA usually still pays benefits. These benefits include emergency care, follow-up care, medical devices, transportation, prescription drugs, physical therapy, and all other reasonably necessary costs.

The “reasonably necessary” requirement is often controversial. Extended physical therapy is a good example. Many injury victims, especially brain injury victims, benefit significantly from extended physical therapy. But if progress temporarily tapers off, many insurance companies try to pull the financial plug. Attorneys advocate for victims in these situations, so the money keeps flowing.

For more information about DBA eligibility, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.