What would Admiral Yi think?
The movie “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” features the Battle of Myeongnyang, in which Korea’s Admiral Yi Sun-sin faced 300 Japanese warships with only 12 ships. Though he was once transferred to the capital city due to slander, Admiral Yi managed to destroy tens of Japanese warships in the battle without the military support of the Ming Dynasty. The secret was his motto: Those who were determined to die would survive the battle, while those who tried to live would perish. The admiral’s statement turned the soldiers’ fear into courage and brought about victory.
Five centuries have passed since then, so let us reflect on the reality of our military. We have a defense budget dozens of times larger than that of North Korea, but without the Korea-U.S. alliance, our military could not even manage to deter the Communist regime, not to mention win a war.
The most representative example of this reality is the issue of regaining wartime operational control.
The United States was scheduled to hand over command of Korean troops to South Korea in 2015, but Seoul is trying to delay the date to 2020.
Insiders also say that Seoul is trying to negotiate for the timing to not be further specified. The Korean military appears to believe that the transfer date should be decided by reassessing its capability to counter the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the ability of our national troops to jointly operate here with the United States after regaining control.
But what is the essence of the transfer? Having the Korean military as the country’s main force would normalize the situation in the nation, while U.S. troops could play a reinforcing role. But some have expressed concerns over the withdrawal of U.S. troops, fearing that the alliance would fall apart and war could break out. As a result, the military is begging Washington to delay the decision.
And that’s not the end of the story. As the North has been staging military provocations more frequently, it was reported that the Korea-U.S. joint field command, which was dismantled in 1992, would be revived in the form of a joint Korea-U.S. division after 22 years and that some of the American troops would remain in the area north of the Han River. Furthermore, reports also stated that the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system would be placed in Korea.
In August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, the primary goal was to work on the Korean troops’ initiative to deter war and prepare for a North Korean attack, but some said that the Korean military’s tendency to rely heavily on U.S. troops was a problem. As the date of the wartime operational control transfer draws nearer, the Korean military’s dependence on the United States is, ironically, deepening.
No one can challenge the fact that the strong Korea-U.S. alliance is a valuable strategic asset for us. But we must not ignore the reality that heavy reliance on the United States is prompting various ill effects. The North’s high-handed attitude is one issue. The North insults the South Korean military while it tries to conduct bilateral talks with the United States to negotiate a peace treaty, with wartime operational control as the reason behind the regime’s behavior.
Even if the North stages a military provocation, the South cannot retaliate immediately. The South’s military also cannot fight a full-scale war on its own. It is, therefore, natural for North Korean policy makers to treat the South’s military lightly. The excessive reliance on the United States could fuel Pyongyang’s military adventurism, and we must not forget that.
The South Korean military’s obsessive reliance on the United States also appears to be an obstacle in improving inter-Korean relations. On Aug. 11, the South Korean government proposed a second round of high-level official talks with the North.
But around the same time, the military leaked information to the media about the plan to create a Korea-U.S. joint division, the decision for some of the U.S. troops to stay in the area north of the Han River and the completion of a feasibility study to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to the Pyeongtaek base.
The Korean military is also marred in a series of scandals. A shooting spree took place at the guard post, while a young soldier was beaten to death by his peers. A field commander was dismissed for leaving his area of command without permission, having engaged in an embarrassing incident under the influence of alcohol. Sexual harassments and rapes have also taken place. Due to these scandals, the military has become a subject of ridicule.
And is the slack discipline truly irrelevant when considering the belief that the United States will defend us in a time of emergency? It is not an exaggeration that the Korean military’s dependence on U.S. troops has become part and parcel of the soldiers’ lack of discipline.
Let’s go back to the movie. “When one person stands to defend a strategic point, you can give fear to a thousand,” said Admiral Yi.
We must remember Yi’s determination. If we insist on fighting until death, the United States cannot be a major decision factor. We must undergo painful self-reflection and realize that we could destroy this country by relying only on outside support. This is my hope for the military during the 66th anniversary of its foundation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 29, Page 31
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in