[Viewpoint] Waffling through a crisis

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[Viewpoint] Waffling through a crisis

“South Korea won’t tolerate any type of provocation from North Korea whatsoever and will abide by proactive deterrence posture. If the North invades our territorial waters, sky or soil, we will immediately exercise our self-defense right,” President Lee Myung-bak said in a televised address in May after the release of an investigation report that blamed North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette and the deaths of 46 sailors two months earlier.

We had no doubt then that next time our forces would be impeccably ready for any North Korean provocation.

Six months later, North Korean artillery rained down on one of our populated islands in broad daylight. It was more or less a declaration of war. If the military “immediately” activated its defenses in line with a “proactive deterrence military posture,” as the president promised, the chain of gun fields along the North’s west coast line should have been completely wiped out by now.

But what really happened? The military more or less feigned retaliatory action. The North fired two rounds of 170 shells at the inhabited island of Yeonpyeong-do. A military unit on the island returned 80 shells in response to the first barrage from the North.

The timorous response from the South prompted a second round of shelling half an hour later. Military officials said they were following the operations manual. But the manual calls for retaliatory action of up to double the firepower employed by the enemy using the equivalent types of artillery.

The military, therefore, should have fired more than 300 shells. Moreover, we have to question the military competency for sticking to the manual when the enemy is ruthlessly shooting at our soil and civilians.

The Blue House, Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first few hours failed to comprehend the gravity of the attack in theory as well as strategically. It did not strike them that the shelling of an inhabited island is fundamentally different from the sporadic exchange of fire near the disputed maritime border or even the torpedo attack on the Cheonan.

Past skirmishes were between naval forces. North Koreans sneaked into the South Korean waters and torpedoed the Cheonan ship on a night patrol mission. Pyongyang still denies any involvement.

But this time, North Korea blatantly and clamorously fired arms directly at our soil for the first time since the Korean War.

Our response should have been different. But the military’s response was textbook-like and orthodox. Our military leadership yet again demonstrated a serious lack of competence and creativity in a crisis situation.

Our rhetoric about “retaliatory action on a many-fold scale” and “immediate exercise of self-defense right” was proven to be as ridiculous as the boy who cried wolf, and the North can’t help but have noticed.

The military was right in exercising restraint with the fighter jets that were dispatched immediately after the North Korean attack, which could have bombed the artillery bases along the North Korean coast. North Korean MiG fighters were standing by.

If our fighters fired missiles at the coastal ground base, the skirmish could have developed into an all-out battle. The president’s restraint in command was appropriate.

Still, the military should have strongly pushed for tougher counteractions and the president should have been seen restraining the military with difficulty. Such a display of fortitude from our leadership would have been clearly noticed by North Korea and China.

The clumsy crisis response came from the control tower at the Blue House. The first word out of the president’s mouth at times of crisis can determine the direction of an event. But the president’s press aides had to correct the presidential reaction four times after the attack.

The president was quoted to have called for restraint to prevent the confrontation from expanding. As the media and public questioned the president’s awareness of the severity of the crisis, his aides back-pedalled and said the president had been calling for tough action from the start. The defense minister also said the president’s command was full of resolute measures. Can the presidential office not even get his words right? We dare not imagine the consequences if the Yeonpyeong attack had resulted in dozens of casualties.

The military’s incompetence in crisis control was underscored by the handling of the Cheonan sinking and yet the president did not address the problem by reorganizing the military. Nor had our defense posture at the front lines on the sea been reinforced.

The military unit on Yeonpyeong, located within firing range of North Korea, only had six K9 howitzers, half of which failed to function. The rest only fired six shells per minute.

It doesn’t matter how much authority the military is given or how the rules of engagement are toughened if the morale of our military remains so lax and irresponsible. The commander should have the courage to defend our land in any way if it is under attack.

The incumbent government failed in disciplining and breathing new air into the military, which has been inert for the last ten years under liberal governments.

North Korea will likely continue with its audaciously belligerent saber-rattling campaign to build military credentials for the inexperienced heir-in-waiting Kim Jong-un and to beg for attention from Washington. The operational manual and the rules of engagement are not the real problem. The president and military leadership must first understand the significance of defending the west sea front line. Displays of civility, such as sending North Korea a message demanding it to cease an attack, cannot protect our borders.

*The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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