TOKYO — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yul has nominated lawmaker and retired Army Lt. Gen. Shin Won Sik as defense minister.
Shin served in the military for 35 years, rising to lieutenant general before retiring in 2016. He was vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2015 and led the Capital Defense Command from 2012 to 2013. He entered politics shortly after retiring from the military, and he now serves in the National Assembly as a member of the ruling People Power Party.
“The challenges to the internal security environment are very serious,” Shin said in a speech as he was nominated for the position. “It is not enough that people live comfortably. If I become the minister of national defense, what will I do? I will do my best to make a soldier worthy of a soldier, and an army worthy of an army.”
The 65-year-old is regarded as a hardliner on North Korea policy. He has criticized South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, which calls for engagement between the neighbors, in seminars and speeches held in local churches from 2017 to 2022.
He has also insisted on abolishing the inter-Korean deal, also known as the 9/19 agreement, that saw the two Koreas pledge to make a joint military buffer zone. The agreement, Shin has said, creates “military vulnerabilities.” His position remains unchanged, and he intends to review the agreement to provide supplementary changes “in the shortest possible time,” he told the press on Thursday.
As a lawmaker, Shin has criticized the Navy’s 500 million won (U.S. $376,000) CVX aircraft carrier program and panned defense reforms initiated under President Moon Jae-in, which reduced the size of the military in favor of acquiring advanced fighter jets and destroyers.
“Shin’s perspective is that troop reductions could weaken deterrence against North Korea,” according to defense analyst Ju Hyung Kim of Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
As defense minister, Shin would likely “advocate [for] maintaining a significant number of ground troops and increase hardware facilities to support the Army in response to North Korea’s provocations,” Ju said.
Also last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appointed Minoru Kihara as the country’s new defense minister. Kihara, a former national security adviser under the Abe and Suga administrations, is seasoned in Japan-Taiwan relations.
The reshuffling in both countries may be part of efforts to align each other’s defense capabilities after military agreements were brokered in Washington in August, Ju said, given troop movements and coverage areas were not clearly defined amid talks between South Korea, Japan and the U.S.
“Up to now, South Korea is not proactive,” Ju said. “New appointments might enable forces in South Korea to expand its range of operations and define how South Korea can help, particularly in providing airfield logistical support.”
Japan has steadily built its ballistic missile defense system and plans to begin test production of medium-range surface-to-air missiles this year. South Korea has yet to expand its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which stalled due to local dissent.
“Once Japan has its long-range hypersonic weapons in the future, it will need to coordinate with South Korea,” Ju said. “If South Korea does not align or clarify the division of labor, it will be a chaotic situation for South Korea.”
Leilani Chavez is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. Her reporting expertise is in East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.