[Viewpoint] Self-reliance or self-destruction?

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[Viewpoint] Self-reliance or self-destruction?

China celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 2009, which happens to be the 61st anniversary of the founding of Korea’s armed forces. In China, the day was marked by a grand military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and CNN broadcast CCTV’s live coverage in real time. Riding in an open-roof car, Chinese President Hu Jintao reviewed the troops and high-tech weapons along Chang’an Avenue. President Hu exuded confidence as he looked upon his nation’s troops. The Chinese must have felt extremely emotional as they witnessed their country’s emergence as a military and economic power. But citizens of neighboring countries might have felt a chill go down their spines.

Korea’s Armed Forces Day celebration was held at Gyeryongdae, South Chungcheong, and the event was broadcast on YTN. As I watched both events at the same time, I could not help but feel bitter. Korean soldiers were in traditional costumes, playing drums and performing sword and spear fights, quite a contrast to the high-tech show that the Chinese army put on.

Instead of traditional costumes, they presented intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hard-headed soldiers. One looked like a field day at an elementary school, the other like a scene out of a blockbuster movie. Of course, China was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation, while Korea’s event was an annual celebration, so a direct comparison is not wholly fair.

For some time, we have become conscious about Korean traditions and seek to promote them in the noble cause of maintaining cultural symbols such as traditional drum playing and samulnori (percussion music). And we’ve seen just how popular the changing of the guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace has become with tourists. These kinds of ceremonies are popular overseas, too, and it is fairly common to see military guards in traditional costumes in other countries. But even though I recognize the meaning of traditional ceremonies, I am concerned that presenting the sword fight on Armed Forces Day might be an expression of crooked self-reliance.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration heavily emphasized self-reliance as a means of disbanding the Korea-U.S. alliance. The key was the retrieval of wartime operational control. The late President Roh asked, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?” and repeatedly emphasized that the president of Korea would not have control over the Korean army if a war broke out.

He also asserted that Korea’s armed forces would be a self-reliant military if the president had operational control. It’s probably fair to say that most Koreans support the idea of a self-reliant defense. It is natural that we want to defend our country by ourselves. However, the question is capacity, and defense is not an emotional challenge.

We do not know how frank the military commanders were with President Roh when they discussed military capacity. However, we can certainly hazard an intelligent guess based on their behavior during the Kim Dae-jung administration. At the time of the West Sea clash, the military commanders restricted the movements of the Navy and allowed vessels to be attacked by the North. The event neglected the funerals of those men who died in the battle. The very same military leaders remained in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and it was never likely that they would suddenly change their attitudes.

Moreover, they might have included traditional sword fights and drum playing as a symbol of self-reliance just to please President Roh, an obsequious trait that still seems to exist today.

In both Korea and the United States, the president is commander-in-chief. Nevertheless, there have been U.S. commanders who let their president know what they really thought.

During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur disagreed with President Harry Truman’s war policy and was removed from his position. Many U.S. military leaders opposed operations in Iraq and resigned. General Stanley McChrystal openly opposed President Obama’s Afghan policy.

But soldiers are supposed to defend their nation regardless of the administration in power. So, do the defense minister and military leaders think they fulfilled their calling when they signed the dissolution of the Korea-U.S. Joint Command, knowing full well that it would not be possible to retrieve wartime operational command until April 2012?

Let’s say Korea did get operational command. How exactly will we respond if North Korea attempts a nuclear attack? A simulation carried out in 2007 by the National Emergency Planning Committee showed that a single primitive nuclear bomb would result in 500,000 to 1 million victims in Seoul. In which case, a self-reliant defense seems somewhat moot since South Korea will be Pyongyang’s hostage forever.

Let’s look further. As China emerges as the second-largest military power, will Korea be able to defend itself through self-reliance alone?

At least until the nuclear tension is relieved, or hopefully until the collective security for Northeast Asia is established, Korea needs to keep working with U.S. forces and should not cling to self-reliance any more.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk

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