A tough look at reactions to North’s provocations

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A tough look at reactions to North’s provocations

It’s been three years since the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk on March 26, 2010. At the time, the South Korean government showed loopholes in its national crisis management, particularly in coping with North Korean affairs.

The managerial loopholes then reemerged after the deadly shelling on Yeonpyeong Island, which occurred only eight months after the torpedoing of the Cheonan.

As North Korea varies its type of assaults, from a sea strike to cyberattacks, questions remain about the response capabilities of the South Korean government.

To this end, the JoongAng Ilbo will release a series of three articles that shed light on the North Korean policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration and its managerial capabilities during the national security crisis.

The Lee Myung-bak administration disbanded the so-called “National Security Council,” a high-level defense body maintained by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun.

The Lee administration said at the time that the move was just part of efforts to move beyond the former administration.

However, in March 2008, Lee suddenly launched a so-called “Crisis Information Management Team,” to replace the National Security Council.

“At the time, the Blue House didn’t seem to be concerned about the term ‘crisis management’ itself,” a former core member of the team said. “Some officials even complained they couldn’t understand why such a team was launched, because they thought it would only create fear of an inexistent crisis.

“All of the information in regard to North Korean affairs that was reported to the Blue House was simply sent up the chain of command,” he said. “There was no analysis, no comprehensive management of it.”

During the early days of the Lee administration, the matter of North Korean policies was treated with less importance than other state affairs, then-officials said.

“The president [Lee] thought inter-Korean affairs would resolve themselves,” a former senior Blue House official said. “I think his policy-making philosophy was focused on state affairs to produce economic profits, such as the four-rivers restoration project or export of nuclear reactors.”

However, contrary to his expectations, Lee suffered constant threats from North Korea’s military for most of his five-year term.

His response system didn’t operate smoothly.

On July 11, 2008, Park Wang-ja, a female South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier at the Mount Kumgang Resort.

The incident was reported to the Blue House at around 11:30 a.m., but a senior presidential secretary in charge of it ate lunch before delivering the news to the president about an hour and a half later, at around 1:00 p.m.

The crisis information management team sent text messages to all the presidential secretaries regarding the shooting incident, but no secretary took action until the president gave an order.

When the naval ship Cheonan sank, then-Defense Minister Kim Tae-young received an erroneous report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which said, “The corvette is leaking because its hull was damaged by something and developed a hole.”

However, at the time of the report, the warship was already split in two and sinking.

“The first report given to then-Minister Kim was ‘the corvette was leaking because of a hole,’?” another senior government official also said. “So Kim said, ‘There are lots of cabins in the ship so tell sailors to escape to the safer places, and then move the corvette somewhere to drain the water.’?”

Kim Seong-man, a former operational commander of the Navy, pointed out the shoddy response of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.

“The biggest loophole of the Cheonan’s sinking was that then-senior officials in the Joint Chiefs of Staff neglected their responsibility to protect national security,” Kim said. “You know what the situation was like when the Cheonan was sinking? The chairman was in Daejeon for a seminar, and no senior officials were at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Lee Han-ho, former Army Chief of Staff, also said, “The fact that the warship was torpedoed was confirmed in 15 minutes. Still, the response of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shows the incompetence of all the officials.”

However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s attitude didn’t improve.

Lee convened a comprehensive defense meeting to mull over resolutions regarding North Korean provocations, but the meeting was only temporary.

Perhaps the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was a predictable incident in light of this.

By Ahn Hee-chang, Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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