Republic of Korea: Country Profile


By Jaehyung Choi, Analyst at IB Consultancy

Security Situation Overview

The North Korean nuclear weapon program has been a significant concern for the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) security. To overcome strategic inferiority against ROK, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles since the 1980s. After North Korea gained its first fissile material from Yongbyon Nuclear Complex, it has conducted six nuclear tests. The first one in October 2006, and the last one in September 2017. The 2018 Defense White Paper from the Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense (MND) stated that North Korea is estimated to have a substantial amount of highly enriched uranium that can be transformed into numerous nuclear warheads and seems to have acquired the capability to miniaturize them. Moreover, missile test launches have proved that North Korean missiles can reach the U.S. mainland.

North Korea’s chemical weapons arsenal is less known to the outside world compared to its nuclear program. However, North Korea’s chemical weapons pose a significant challenge to the ROK’s security. North Korea is believed to have an estimated stockpile of 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons. It is one of the world’s largest producers of chemical weapons, ranking third after the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. Department of Defense believes that North Korea can produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents. To make matters worse, North Korea has multiple means of delivering chemical agents, including but not limited to artillery and ballistic missiles. In 2017, North Korea used V.X. nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. This incident shows North Korea’s willingness to use chemical weapons even outside its territory.

Both the ROK government and the U.S. government officials suspect North Korea to have various types of biological agents that can be used as a biological weapon. According to 2018 ROK Defense White paper, “Sources indicate that North Korea is capable of cultivating and producing various types of biological agents, such as anthrax, smallpox, and pests.” Also, the former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, stated that “North Korea has a longstanding BW capability and biotechnology infrastructure that could support a BW program.” However, open-source intelligence that is currently available does not provide concrete evidence on whether North Korea has produced and stockpiled biological weapons.

During and after the Korean War, warring parties planted land mines along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On the South, landmines were actively planted during the 1960s in order to stop North Korean Army infiltration and to compensate for the absence of ROK troops that were deployed to Vietnam. The landmines planted on both sides of DMZ amount to 2 million. On the South alone, around 124 million ㎡ territories are affected by landmines, and it is expected to take more than 200 years to eradicate them.

Compared to other developed countries, ROK managed to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low without implementing a country-wide lockdown. Extensive and robust contact tracing combined with a non-politicized, science-based approach to the pandemic gave ROK a current reputation as a model for the rest of the world.


Since joining the United Nations in 1991, the ROK has been an active participant in numerous international non-proliferation efforts. Although North Korea is not a party to most non-proliferation treaties, ROK showed restraint and established itself as a responsible actor in the international non-proliferation regime.


  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): Provides technological supports to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy
  • Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): Prevents the proliferation of nuclear weapons and realizes nuclear disarmament

Chemical and Biological Weapons

  • Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): Prohibits all development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical and toxin weapons
  • Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): Prohibits development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological weapons

Conventional Weapons

  • Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) – prohibits or restricts the use of mines, booby traps, etc

Overview of CBRNe Stakeholders

The main governmental stakeholders when it comes to crisis response are Police Strike Force, 119 Rescue Service (CBRNe Rescue Team), Military, National Intelligence Service (NIS), and Local Governments. Specific CBRN response measures are taken by different Ministries, such as the Ministry of Environment (Chemical), Ministry of Health and Welfare (Biological), and Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (Radiological).

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is crucial in monitoring and addressing potential CBRN crises through the Armed Forces and ROK CBR Defense Command (Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Defense Command). A team of dedicated CBRN Special Forces under the guidance of the Minister of Defense can be deployed to contaminated areas for risk assessment and decontamination with the ultimate purpose of preventing the further spread of contamination and minimizing the ensuing damage.

ROK CBR Defense Command represents the only nationwide CBR-professional force in Korea. The mission of the Command is to execute counter-CBR terrorism operations, assist VIP escort operations, support joint CBR training exercises, back up CBR operations for the armed forces, carry out WMD-E operations, and verify and analyze CBR weapons.

In terms of military training, the ROK Army CBRN School represents the only school in the ROK military specializing in CBRN. The ROK Army CBRN school is in charge of giving training to not only Army but also, navy, airforce, marine, police, and national emergency service.

While the CBRN Command under MND acts as first responders mainly in the military CBRN-related crisis management, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety participates in civilian defense regarding the CBRN threat in coordination with other ministries.

The 119 Rescue Service is the major civil first responder in charge of CBRN terror. As such, its major responsibilities include dispatching rescue teams, emergency response on the ground in case of a large-scale disaster, prevent the further spread of disaster and minimize casualties in close cooperation with the Fire Protection Safety Agency (Ministry of Interior and Safety), Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Defense and the Police.


Although the ROK national defense budget has been increasing by an annual average rate of 4% in the previous five years, the proportion of the defense budget in government spending and the GDP showed little change. In 2018, the ROK defense budget accounted for about 10% of the total government spending and about 2.4% of the GDP. ROK’s defense budget to GDP ratio is higher than the world average, which is around 2%.

According to the Mid-term Defense Plan 2019-2023, “securing forces to deter and respond to North Korea’s nuclear and WMD threats” marked the top priority for ROK. KRW 32.3 trillion is allocated to acquire core forces to cope with nuclear and WMD threats. According to the 2018 white paper, MND plans to “acquire capabilities to strike strategic targets” by enhancing surveillance and long-range strike capabilities.

KRW 33.4 trillion is allocated to secure forces needed to reorganize the military structure and to prepare for Operational Control (OPCON) transition from the U.S. to ROK. For the OPCON transition, ROK needs to acquire core military capabilities to counter North Korea’s nuclear and WMD threats at an early stage. Since 2015 when the Conditions-Based OPCON Transition Plan was approved, ROK Armed Forces strived to acquire counter nuclear and missile threats.


ROK’s CBRN defense capability evolves around the three pillars: Military, Civilian-Government-Military cooperation, and ROK-U.S. military cooperation. ROK Armed Forces have the capability to proactively counter CBRN attacks in multiple forms, be it terrorism, disease, or accidents. ROK-U.S. combined intelligence system thoroughly monitors North Korea’s WMD facilities and detect early sign of an attack. When CBRN incidents break out, CBRN units at each echelon can conduct decontamination operations in affected areas. In case of a terrorist attack, the CBRN Rapid Response Team (CRRT) and the CBRN special mission battalion under ROK CBRN Defense Command are fully in charge.

The Civilian–Government–Military Integrated Exercises comprise the second pillar of the ROK CBRN Defense capability. The annual integrated exercise, along with the Safe Korea Exercise, ensures that all relevant actors thoroughly understand the procedures to respond to CBRN attacks. Moreover, national radiological disaster prevention joint training and bioterrorism simulation drills build close cooperation among relevant actors.

The cooperation between ROK and the U.S. Armed Forces further enhances the response capability against CBRN threats. The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee (CWMDC), which is a director-general–level consultative body, holds annual meetings to stop the spread of WMD and enhance joint response capability. Moreover, ROK–U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) tests the joint CBRN crisis response system by conducting Adaptive Shield Exercise.

Programs and Joint Operations/Exercises in the field of CBRNe

Nationwide civilian–government–military training

  • The civilian–government–military integrated exercise: Aimed at the thorough learning of procedures to respond to attacks and acts of terrorism, involving chemical and biological weapons
  • Bioterrorism simulation drills: Hosted by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent and respond to bioterrorism
  • National radiological disaster prevention joint training: Hosted by Nuclear Safety and Security Commission to prevent and respond to radiological disaster

ROK Armed Forces Joint Exercise and Training

  • Taegeuk Exercise: Exercise operations execution procedures to prepare for various threats caused by changes in the operational environment.
  • Hoguk Training: Operational plan execution training in preparation for local provocations and full-scale war Comprehensive rear area training (hwarang training): Operations to prepare against infiltrations and local provocations

ROK-U.S. Armed Forces Joint Exercise and Training

  • Adaptive Shield Exercise: A military tabletop exercise conducted under the supervision of the ROK–U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) to test the crisis response system regarding potential CBRN crises.


In order to buttress the ongoing peace talks between ROK and North Korea in 2018, Inter-Korean Military Tension Reduction Agreement was signed. However, despite the ROK government’s effort, the peace talks between North Korea and the United States have been stagnating. As a result, North Korea has not come fully forward to relieve the military tension in the Korean Peninsula. Although North Korea destroyed Punggye-ri nuclear test site, there has been no substantive reduction in North Korean WMD arsenals. Nonetheless, the new defense minister, Suh Wook, who was sworn in recently, made a vow to “fully implement an inter-Korean military tension reduction agreement” and, at the same time, to “maintain a staunch readiness posture.” At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the ROK faced a difficult challenge of finding a balance between stopping the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going. Unlike other countries, ROK managed to find the balance without implementing a nationwide lockdown. ROK did not forgo either one of its two goals. ROK, this time, needs to find a difficult balance between two contrasting goals in the field of defense: one to reduce the military capability to facilitate the peace process and the other to maintain a robust readiness posture against the North Korean military threat. Only history will be able to tell us if the balance can be found.

About the Author

Jaehyung is a Master’s degree student from Sciences Po Paris, majoring in International Security. After finishing his first year of studies focusing on Global Risks and International Conflict Analysis, he joined the IBC team in July 2020.

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