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Reviewed by:
  • Arming the Two Koreas: State, Capital and Military Power
  • Andrei Lankov (bio)
Arming the Two Koreas: State, Capital and Military Power, by Taik-young Hamm. Politics in Asia Series. New York: Routledge, 1999. 243 pp. $90.00 cloth.

The military dimension of the Korean problem has for a long time attracted a great deal of attention (not the least because of the U.S. military involvement in the region). However, most publications have paid almost exclusive attention to the military balance of power, largely ignoring the economic forces behind the military buildup and reducing the military developments to the simplistic logic of an "arms race." Hamm Taik-young's work is an attempt to attract more attention to the politics and, especially, economics behind the military competition on the Korean peninsula. It provides us with a distinct "economist's view" of the Korean military balance.

The author is decisively critical of what he styles "bean counting," that is, painstakingly calculating the various weapons supposedly amassed by both Korean governments (a common pastime of most military analysts). Even with some qualitative coefficients included, "bean counting" is misleading: according to Hamm, "it hides more than it shows" (p. 163). Instead, Hamm concentrates on the military economics, reflecting his strong belief that "defense expenditure is the single most important indicator of arms buildup and military capabilities" (p. 163). Since Hamm considers the economic base to be the key to a correct understanding of the ever-changing power balance between the two Koreas, he undertakes a major attempt to reassess the military expenditures of both the ROK and the DPRK as well as to make some estimations of foreign military aid to both Korean states. A large part of the book consists of the figures, tables, and comparisons necessary for such a reassessment.

The book is different from other publications on similar topics in one important aspect: it deals not only with the current situation, but historically as well. Hamm tries to reconstruct a coherent picture of the "military economics" of the South and North since the Korean War and trace the dynamics of this equation. The author is skeptical of widely used explanations of military buildups. According to Hamm, these models form only a partial explanation at best, so it is necessary to combine them. One of the most important (and quite persuasive) conclusions of the book is that the action-reaction model of the arms race, so often applied to the rivalry between the two Koreas, does not correlate well with the economic data. However, Hamm also concludes that this model "cannot be rejected altogether" (p. 117). Nevertheless, too often obvious challenges by the other side were left unanswered, and action was not followed by reaction. The ups and downs of the military competition in the Korean peninsula, Hamm believes, has much more to do with internal politics and economics, as well as relations between the Koreas and their Great Power sponsors, than with attempts to catch up with or overtake the enemy. For example, a great [End Page 132] increase in North Korean war-making capabilities in the 1960s did not trigger a significant reactive rise in the military expenditures of the South. Back in the late 1960s, the South lost the edge in the military competition and remained behind the North for about a decade. Nor was the considerable buildup of the DPRK forces in the 1960s a reaction to some challenge from the South but an attempt to adapt to a sudden drop in Soviet aid. On the contrary, the late 1980s and the 1990s were a period of significant South Korean military buildup, while North Korea remained generally stagnant. According to the results of Hamm's economy-centered analyses, in the last decade or so the military capabilities of the South have been unquestionably superior to those of the North, but this considerable superiority does not lead to any slowdown in military development.

The econometric approach to the military problem also led Hamm to distinguish between the increasingly labor-intensive strategy of the North (attempts to substitute sophisticated and expensive military machinery with large numbers of conscripts armed with basic weapons) and the increasingly capital-intensive...


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