[Viewpoint] A military that cannot defendSouth Koreans are going about with their daily lives with heavy hearts and butterflies in their stomachs amid news of more coastal artillery explosions and escalating North Korean rhetoric over the South Korea-U.S. naval drills in response to the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, one of the frontline islands in the tense Yellow Sea.
We have grown accustomed to sporadic provocations from North Korea over the last six decades, but never has the possibility of another war felt so real. We feel betrayed and insecure to discover that our frontline forces cannot even respond to artillery fire despite dutiful public spending. We tried to understand that the sinking of the Cheonan warship might have been unavoidable despite our state-of-the-art equipment because of the murkiness and the fast currents of the Yellow Sea.
But how are we supposed to acknowledge that our military’s capacity only amounts to a few dozen artillery shells fired in response to the hundreds of shells that rained down on populated land in broad daylight? The disbelief from the sudden loss of a son, husband or father and the awe of watching the country in a fluster over a security disaster unleash a gush of uncontrollable outrage.
The people cannot understand how a country with one of the world’s most fortified borders and largest armies with hundreds of military experts, hundreds of generals, and thousands of retired generals has been protecting its frontline archipelago with just a dozen howitzers. After all the skirmishes and provocations, the country should have had a contingency plan - a rudimentary strategy of supplementing military power with naval and air forces - to defend the Northern Limit Line, the disputed sea border.
All the war games proved ineffective in real-life conflict. Any military conflict gives priority to protecting populated areas, and an armed forces that cannot deter an unruly enemy firing ruthlessly against innocent people amounts to no more than a paper tiger. The Navy and Air Force that circle around the battlefield doing nothing are no more than a showcase. What was instead revealed on Yeonpyeong Island was defective artillery, a lax war scenario and soldiers ducking away from real combat.
What horrifies us most of all is the evacuation plan, or to be precise, the lack thereof. The military must quickly decide and evacuate civilians to safe shelters. Helping the wounded and sheltering civilians are military common sense during a real conflict. A rescue order should have been handed down immediately and naval ships and helicopters should have been readied to carry worried civilians safely to the mainland.
The president and military authorities in underground bunkers should have addressed, first of all, a rescue operation in the conflict zone. But what they did instead was argue over the nature of the battle. No one in the command bunker raised the urgency of a rescue plan. It was the civilian-led emergency committee that told the residents with loudspeakers to evacuate the island. They had to jump onto fishing boats and ferries because there was no transportation help from the government.
At a time of crisis, the government was nowhere to be found. They were no different from the fishing people jumping into their boats to flee and save themselves from the conflict zone. During the Korean War, an American warship was there to rescue and take citizens from Heungnam to a refugee camp on the mainland. In 2010, Yeonpyeong Island civilians jumped on trawlers and are now huddled at jjimjilbang, or public bathhouses.
The entire population is in a fury. The rhetoric pledging to strike back in “multi-fold” ways and upgrade artillery preparations is no different than the cries of wolf shouted by an unreliable shepherd boy. Fathers who served the military with staunch fortitude are astonished by the ludicrous state of the military, and mothers who after a teary embrace sent their sons to the Army are shocked when they return home in coffins.
Where did all the colossal defense spending paid by our salaries go? What is in the minds of the uniformed men with stars on their chests when fishing boats carry civilians out of the battlefield? What exactly is the defense strategy of a nation technically at war with the world’s worst rogue state? Does this country even have a military serving the people?
No nuclear-armed super carrier from America and stunning showcase of war games at sea can bring back our sons who fell victim in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks. The charred lives on the Yeonpyeong Island and the shattered credibility cannot be restored. In a country that disastrously flunked defending the island and sea border, we are all at risk. People are at a loss after decades of being protected by the hollow rhetoric of our “impeccable defense.”
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun