[Viewpoint] Misguided defense reformHan Fei, the ancient Chinese philosopher who shaped law in the East as Niccolo Machiavelli did in the West, said in his renowned collection of writings that a state’s livelihood depends on how disputes are settled, rather than on its strength or weakness in arms, and on its ruler’s competence, rather than on the size of its military.
In other words, the leader’s wisdom in reading the flow of events, the context in which they take place, and his ability to make quick decisions are more important than the number of soldiers or equipment in a state’s military arsenal. But in our case, the direction of the defense reforms the administration is pursuing raises doubts about whether our leadership understands the realities of our security situation, and whether it is competent to address the issues involved.
President Lee Myung-bak last year strongly reprimanded the military after its clumsy response to North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. As a result, the Ministry of National Defense hurriedly concocted a plan to overhaul its leadership to name a new command for the combined forces, which was supposed to enhance coordination among the land, air and sea forces headed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The plan, however, looks like reform on paper alone because the military command still revolves around the Army. Maintaining such a status quo will do little to improve the weaknesses exposed after last year’s military provocations from North Korea.
The Cheonan attack raised questions about the capacity of our military and intelligence authorities to perceive North Korean military movements and counter an underwater attack. The debacle also highlighted the inept and rigid system of reporting and commanding. The fact that military power is disproportionately centered on the Army-dominated combined forces command is partly to be blamed.
The same problems were seen after the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The military again failed to detect any abnormal signals before the attack because of a lack of intelligence capability. And again, despite the North’s repeated threats and objections to the sea border, our Navy conducted firing exercises in the disputed waters with antiquated, run-down cannons and howitzers, which provided a poor defense of the civilian-populated islands within range of North Korean guns.
The military’s limited capability, stemming from its inefficient command system, led to confusion that eventually cost civilian lives. The problems are evident, and thus, solutions should not be that difficult to prescribe. The military should beef up its intelligence on North Korea, build deterrences against submarine attacks, augment arms in areas vulnerable to North Korean attacks, improve its command system and foster equality in the three military branches.
Yet the current reform plan will only reinforce Army control over the military command. A retired Air Force general complained that the Navy had been in charge of engagements in the Yellow Sea with the Air Force serving as its backup. But since the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, the Army is pushing for a combined system mostly led by land forces. Revamping the military command structure at a time of escalating North Korean threats and with scant time left before war command is returned to South Korea from the United States just doesn’t make sense.
Going back’s Han Fei’s lessons on leadership, the philosopher wrote that a state exists in order to safeguard the lives and security of its people and to enhance their prosperity and happiness. The leader must place top priority on easing tension through pre-emptive diplomatic endeavors, cementing international credibility and improving the security environment. Exercising military power should be a last resort. But the government has gotten its priorities all wrong. North Korea is undeniably a dangerous threat. But the administration’s aggressive deterrence strategy supporting pre-emptive attacks is not the answer.
A leader must develop strategic farsightedness in security affairs. It is wrong to strengthen a military structure centered on land forces without a long-term vision and just because of an immediate threat. A larger vision that takes into account regional instability developing from China’s rise and a subsequent military buildup is the right direction for military reform.
Balancing power among the three branches of the military is also a wise step to counter growing North Korean threats and unpredictable developments in the security environment. Defense reform can sway a country’s future. Insight and competency are still virtues in determining state security.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in