An army general’s wayWhether he gets through confirmation hearings smoothly or not, President Park Geun-hye will likely stick with her choice of former general Kim Byung-kwan as her first defense minister. With her strong endorsement, the naysayers against the controversial nominee may eventually die down. But would that be the end of the story?
The allegations surrounding Kim showed the dark side of a general. A general is a four-star military officer, the highest rank in the army. There are 8 four-star generals in Korea: three army commanders, the deputy commander of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces, three chiefs of general staff and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. An army general goes through the mission as Commander of the First or Third ROK Army — one of the highest field ranks commanding 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers. Even if one does not reach the rank of chief of general staff, a four-star rank is the pinnacle and highest honor for a serviceman.
Therefore, an army general must embody the spirit of the South Korean military. A general does not retire as he, in essence, should be an officer forever on active duty. Kim, however, has not lived up to this symbolic role after he retired from military service. On the morning following the Cheonan tragedy in March 2010, he played golf. He told a newspaper that he was a reservist at the time and was unaware that North Korea had been behind the sinking that killed 46 seamen. But there is no excuse for a general idly playing golf while the military was engaged in a desperate rescue operation and the rest of the country prayed and mourned for the victims.
His rich commanding experience should have told him that North Korea could have been behind the attack. As an expert in arms and tactics, he must have read signs of North Korea’s sneaky submarine operations and capabilities. He must have witnessed the work of North Korea’s special unit of underwater submersibles in frontline coastal areas. How could a four-star military strategist say he had not suspected North Korea’s involvement in the Cheonan sinking while most ordinary people on the street did almost immediately?
He also found himself in hot water for offering consultancy services to an arms broker. He argued that he was not involved in any lobbying activities and worked only for a joint venture in tank engine development. But the Korean public is sensitive to arms import. During President Roh Tae-woo’s term in 1993, two former defense ministers and former chiefs of staff of the navy and air force received prison sentence for pocketing bribes for arms imports.
The broker would not have paid Kim for his expertise alone. The company would have invested in his four-star rank. The broker wanted to flaunt its four-star consultant to its German partner. Kim received 200 million won ($182,949) for lending his four-star credentials. It was a kind of retirement benefit for an ex-general.
A defense minister carries symbolic weight beyond his individual capabilities. That’s particularly so for a country like South Korea or Israel, which are in a constant state of insecurity. The security command must have the highest degree of credibility to draw necessary support from the people in times of emergency. Israel’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak was commander of the country’s elite special operations unit and successfully led the 1972 operation against Palestinian militants who hijacked a passenger plane in Ben Gurion airport. Israeli President Shimon Peres served as defense minister at the time of the famous Entebbe rescue in 1976. A dyed-in-the-wool commando ethos is behind the leadership of Israel.
The new defense minister of South Korea has a historic mission. He must protect the people from a nuclear-armed North Korea. He must be an extraordinary character with the highest degree of integrity and capabilities to stand at the forefront of our border. Even as foreign and unification ministers talk of engagement policies to build mutual trust with North Korea, the defense minister must remain hawk-eyed and capable of seeing through North Korean leaders. He must be able to stand up and tell the president and country that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must be stopped at any cost and that the military is ready to act at the command of the president.
Kim is both ethically flawed and highly capable in military affairs. Many former ministers and military seniors criticize his post-retirement trajectory. His capabilities and expertise in tactics, weaponry and alliances are recognized. Former Combined Forces commander Burwell Bell also said Kim is the perfect candidate for the defense minister post.
Once confirmed as defense minister, Kim will have to seek atonement from the people through his devotion and capabilities. He calls himself a war expert. He wants to shape up the military. It’s time the South Korean military becomes a true combat force. This army general must pave the way. There may yet be a role for Kim.