Reform for the sake of securityThe incumbent government’s push to reform the defense system following the sinking of the Cheonan and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island is unlikely to be carried out by the incoming government. The Ministry of National Defense, in its report to the presidential transition team, indicated that it will give up defense reforms aimed to restructure the military and command system to respond more effectively against North Korean attacks. The outline to redress the shortcomings against increasing threats from North Korea and enhance capabilities before assuming the responsibility of wartime operational control by 2015 may go down the drain.
President-elect Park Geun-hye places a higher priority on improving welfare standards for soldiers than strengthening military capabilities, raising concerns about the new government’s perspective on defense and security.
The Defense Ministry’s reform plan has been drawn up amid criticism over the messy and inefficient military contingency command system demonstrated during the two deadly incidents. The military is plagued with deeply rooted distrust among the three major branches of the military and their conflict interferes with effective cross-operational engagement. For instance, the report of the sinking of the Cheonan was delayed, which consequently held up response and rescue actions. The reforms are aimed to overhaul the top command structure to ensure a cooperative alliance among different military branches. The reform plan was strongly opposed by retired Naval and Air Force officers. They complained that the power of the Army will strengthen if their chiefs of staff report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who usually comes from the Army. The leadership of the ruling and opposition parties sidestepped the reform plan ahead of the presidential election.
The reform bill failed to pass during the last National Assembly session even as most on the National Defense Committee approved the plan due to lukewarm endorsement from the leadership. The Defense Ministry handed in the reform again to the National Assembly that was reorganized after the April election, but it has not been reviewed yet. The discouraged Defense Ministry did not express strong leanings toward the reform plan.
During the last two elections, the Saenuri Party customized platforms to gain votes rather than having the military in mind. It promised to double monthly allowances for soldiers and shorten compulsory military service. But the election is over. The transition team must realize that security cannot strengthen without defense reform.