[EDITORIALS]Zen and the Art of National Defense

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[EDITORIALS]Zen and the Art of National Defense

The government's indecisive reaction to the repeated crossing of the Northern Limit Line by North Korean vessels is scorching the souls of the South Korean public, which has already been burnt by the worst drought in 90 years. The authorities' feeble and unprincipled reaction to the North Korean intrusions on Wednesday and Thursday makes us wonder whether our military has the mission of defending our nation. Reading the transcript of radio transmissions between our navy and one of the North Korean vessels gives the impression that the North Korean vessel was giving orders to our navy. It also raises suspicion of a secret agreement over the North's innocent right of passage through South Korean waters.

Although Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin said at the National Assembly on June 7 that any recurrence of North's intrusion would be dealt with sternly, the navy only warned the Nampo II, which crossed the NLL to sail through South Korean waters for about 20 hours on Thursday. Another violation was seen at the NLL later, but the military maintained that there was no problem since it was a "line-crossing," not an intrusion.

There are some problems here. First, the government's crisis management system is not functioning effectively to counter intrusions into our waters. The military should react to the intrusion according to the rules of engagement based on the 1953 armistice and then seek orders or approval from above. We suspect that the military's confused reaction resulted from political considerations, and that is why Minister Kim's stated resolve to act was nothing but bluster. If the government intended to approach this issue politically, then the National Security Council should have prepared a detailed set of instructions on how the military should react in such cases. But the council did not. President Kim Dae-jung's zen-like order to "wisely react" is not that of a commander in chief of all our armed services.

Second, it is not clear whether the military's belated application of the concept of "line-crossing" refers to passing through the military surveillance area or an act intended to allow North Korean ships the right of innocent passage. The government should consider allowing and regulating the passage of North Korean vessels depending on which of the three naval operations zones - territorial, operational and surveillance - the vessels are passing through. It should ask the North to grant similar privileges to South Korean vessels. This way, the military can react sternly to future intrusions but still avoid wasteful North-South confrontation and contentious domestic debate.

Third, suspicions have recently been raised that the two Koreas reached a secret agreement to allow the passage of North Korean vessels through our waters during last year's June 15 summit. The suspicions were triggered by the fact that Seoul has reacted weakly to the North, the North Koreans claim their Cheju Strait passage was based on an agreement at the North-South summit last year and we learned belatedly that the government drafted a North-South maritime accord prior to the fifth ministerial meeting between the two Koreas that was scheduled in March but never took place.

While the government flatly rejected the existence of a secret agreement, it needs to think about why it has to face such suspicions. Key issues between the two Koreas should not always remain secret. The leadership of the opposition should be notified to a certain extent as to what is going on. Doing so will not only guarantee transparency in dealings with the North but also ease the implementation of its North Korean policy.
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