[Viewpoint] Park must answer on defense bill

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[Viewpoint] Park must answer on defense bill

Park Geun-hye, chairwoman of the Grand National Party’s emergency leadership council, has faced serious obstacles more than once. She saved the party from crisis in 2004 and set the ground for the conservative party to regain governing power. But she lost her chance to bid for the presidency in 2007. She remained crouched for four years, waiting for another chance. She has finally returned to the central stage, but public favor has turned against the conservative. Her frustration must be unimaginable.

But she has no time to trouble herself with self-pity, again entrusted with the mission of saving the sinking party. The party’s fate from the outcome of the legislative election in April and presidential election in December lies on her shoulders. She is meticulously discreet with her words on politically and socially sensitive issues. But I personally would like to hear her opinion on one particular issue, which is the defense reform bill that has been sitting idly at the National Assembly since May last year.

The government proposed sweeping restructuring of the defense system in 2010 following the poor response to North Korea’s deadly attacks against the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. The need for reform to strengthen military capabilities has been unquestionable with U.S. command of wartime operational control due to be handed over to South Korea in 2015.

But no one dared to push forward defense restructuring due to various stumbling blocks and conflicts of interest. Some were suspicious of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s motives behind initiating reforms. Its “revolutionary” set of proposals was suspected to be nothing more than a diversion, aimed at improving public opinion of the administration or at least distracting voters from their discontent.

Regardless of what the motive may have been, the defense bill has been scrutinized at the National Assembly thanks to persistent advocacy in favor of defense reform by government officials and the understanding by some lawmakers. But overall, the action taken in the National Assembly with regard to the critical security issue was inadequate. Some of the review procedures were beyond comprehension.

Politicians may not agree to all the details of the defense reform plans. But there is no disagreement on the need for a new and efficient defense system with South Korea soon to be fully authorized to command a war. But the legislative process has been stalled because of a subtle inner circle power struggle.

At the heart of the stalemate sits Representative Shin Hak-yong, a member of the main opposition Democratic Unity Party who also serves as the head of the bill review subcommittee of the National Defense Committee. He is said to be close to Sohn Hak-kyu, former head of the Democratic Party, who resigned from office after the opposition formed a coalition party. Sohn’s brother is a reserve Air Force officer.

Shin is suspected to be blocking the bill under heavy pressure from retired Air Force officers who are most vehemently opposed to the defense reform package, which they view as unfairly favoring the Army. From remarks at the hearings, Shin does not reject the need for defense reforms. Yet his actions speak otherwise as he keeps the bill from advancing to a higher defense committee by using his authority as the head of the subcommittee.

And we’re not really sure where the ruling party stands, either. One legislator who used to be a career military officer helped delay the process by raising various questions about details in the bill. Some say he is acting on behalf of Park, who is, at least for now, the most promising presidential candidate from the GNP. But one of her clear loyalists, Representative Yoo Seung-min, is an outspoken advocate for the reform plan. This conflict creates confusion about Park’s position.

As a likely presidential contender, Park should take a special interest in the law to realign the country’s military and security system and strategy. She has served on the National Defense Committee as well on the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee. Therefore, she should know about the urgent need to enhance efforts to protect national security.

Yet, she has not once commented on the defense reform plan. Park is said to have turned away Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin, who visited her to advocate for the plan. Legislators just don’t seem to recognize the urgency of the defense issue.

The bill on the new defense strategy must pass during the legislative session that ends in February. Otherwise, defense reform may not succeed, and South Korea won’t be fully ready when it regains wartime operational command in 2015.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kang Young-jin
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