A South Korean worker in an orange cap with his North Korean counterpart in yellow connect a rail line during a symbolic ceremony to re-link their railways in the demilitarized zone on June 14, 2003. The South is trying to increase ties with the North. Photo: AFP/Photo pool

In moves that appear to be designed to appeal to opposed constituencies, Seoul is seeking to upgrade spending on both inter-Korean projects and defense next year.

The preliminary 2019 budget plans were revealed by related ministries on Tuesday. They come at a time when South Korea seeks to expand a range of projects with the North, while also coming under pressure to increase defense spending.

Washington has been demanding more from its allies and Seoul is engaged in a process that would see it take wartime operational control of its own troops, which now fall under the command of a US general who controls joint forces.

Under the plans, the country would expand its inter-Korean cooperation fund by a hefty 14.3%, year on year, to 1.1 trillion won (US$990 million), Yonhap news agency reported. Within that, the budget for cross-border projects, such as the modernization of the North’s roads and railways, will rise substantially to 504 billion won, up 46% from this year.

The Ministry of Unification is also raising its budget for reunions of families split by the Korean War almost threefold, to 33.6 billion won.

Meanwhile, the country is also seeking to increase its defense budget 8.2% year-on-year in 2019 to 46.7 trillion won – the largest expansion since 2008, according to Yonhap.

The Ministry of National Defense is seeking 5.78 trillion won for its nascent “three-axis” defense system to counter threats from North Korea. The system encompasses assets to incapacitate or kill the North Korean leadership in the event of conflict, a “Kill Chain” platform designed to take out North Korean weapons of mass destruction preemptively and the defensive Korea Air and Missile Defense system.

About 1.58 trillion won has been set aside to build capabilities necessary to take over wartime operational control from the US and include communication, reconnaissance and counter-artillery assets. Under the plan, other areas of major investment include vehicles to upgrade military agility and command-and-control systems at a time when manpower is shrinking.

The budget is being planned against the backdrop of Seoul’s plan to cut 100,000 troops from its current armed forces strength of 618,000 – stripping the army’s order of battle of the equivalent of six divisions – by 2022.

That plan has been prompted by Korea’s demographic fall, but is also seen as a vote winner in a country where national conscription is deeply unpopular.

The plans by both ministries are preliminary at this point. Both have to pass a National Assembly review.