A troubling spat

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A troubling spat

The minister and vice minister of national defense recently clashed over the defense budget for next year.

Vice Minister Chang Soo-man proposed to the Blue House that the government reduce the planned budget increase. But Minister Lee Sang-hee, who found out about the proposal after the fact, wrote a letter to the Blue House and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance protesting any cut to the budget increase - in the process reprimanding Chang for his failure to talk to his superior before issuing the proposal.

This is deplorable. A cabinet ministry charged with handling the grave task of national defense can’t even get its top two officials on the same page, which has rightfully made the people nervous.

Often referred to as “the government within the government,” the Ministry of National Defense is a powerful agency that controls massive human resources and budgets. Its responsibilities go beyond defense and into the realms of politics, diplomacy, social affairs and culture. That is why it is important that high-ranking officials at the ministry be receptive to different ideas and use funds efficiently - even more so than at any of the other ministries. In previous administrations, financial experts have taken the vice defense minister’s position when it comes to the budget, for just that reason.

After a bribery scandal involving military supplies, former President Kim Young-sam named former Vice Finance Minister Lee Soo-hyu the next vice defense minister. Chang used to be the head of the Public Procurement Service - a state agency that manages strategic commodities - before he became the second-highest defense official early this year. Chang made his presence felt during the presidential campaign and was tapped as the influential vice minister who would assert serious power when it came to defense reforms.

The latest controversy appears to be a battle for control between the defense minister and his vice minister, who have apparently forgotten the people’s expectations for efficiency and competence. In his letter to the Blue House, Lee reportedly used the terms “disobedience” and “merely personal views” to describe Chang’s action. A vice minister who failed to report to his chief on something as serious as the defense budget and a minister who cries foul after the fact are pathetic all the same. At a ministry that is responsible for national security, maintaining order is vital. This is no time for in-house fighting, especially with the North Korean nuclear test and the transfer of its wartime operation command. At a time when we need absolute harmony at the top, the leadership’s recent actions have been quite disconcerting.
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