No security vacuum from the relocation
The author, a former editorial writer and director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, is a senior writer on military affairs.
The outgoing and incoming presidents are clashing over the relocation of the presidential office to the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan in central Seoul. Despite President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s repeated pledge to move the office by May 10, his inauguration day, President Moon Jae-in is objecting on security grounds. In a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at the Blue House, Moon expressed concerns about a “possible security vacuum and confusion” from the relocation “during the transition period if the NSC crisis management center, the defense ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) headquarters are all relocated.” 11 former chairmen of the JCS shared Moon’s concerns. But more than 1,000 retired generals of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines did not. According to the latter group, there will be no security vacuum even if the presidential office moves. Who is right?
As a spokesman for the defense ministry for five years, I witnessed the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, the explosion of mines planted in the DMZ in August 2015, and its third nuclear test in February 2016 — all in the bunker of the JCS. I took part in Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills for one week each year and have been to a number of command bunkers of our military, not to mention the bunker in the Blue House.
The bunker in the presidential office showed some vulnerability to enemy attack. I found the three buildings for presidential secretaries quite pregnable to missile attacks from North Korea. Moreover, the room of the commander in chief is 500 meters (547 yards) away from his aides — a major impediment to efficient communication between the president and his staff.
Will a security vacuum really occur in the process of the relocation as opponents claim? They contend that crisis management and war command functions of the presidential office will be impaired during a relocation of the office to the defense ministry, and a relocation of the ministry to the JCS nearby. In the ministry building, however, the national defense communication and map communication networks are already part of the “C4I system” for combined command and control. The disaster communication network only needs a small fix to function, ministry officials say. The C4I system to be installed in the new presidential office in the ministry building will be activated from May 10 and the existing system in the Blue House will be used until then. Put simply, no significant security vacuum appears obvious during the relocation except the need for thorough preparation for possible hackings by North Korea.
In the JCS building to be used by the defense ministry, the C4I system is already set up. As military operations basically are carried out by the JCS, the bunker in the building is functioning on a 24-hour basis. Even if the defense ministry moves to the JCS building in Yongsan, ministry officials involved in military operations only need to connect their personal devices to the C4I system in the JCS. (During the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, defense ministry officials brought laptop computers with them to participate in the drill orchestrated by the JCS in the government’s B1 bunker below Mount Gwanak.) Barring some glitches in the relocation, no big problems are expected in the president’s command and control systems for wartime.
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Some people express concerns that if the presidential office moves to Yongsan, a concentration of the commander in chief, defense minister and chairman of the JCS will be created, which would be vulnerable to North Korean attack. But worries about such vulnerability to the North’s missiles or long-distance multiple rockets are overblown in military terms. Barring a nuclear attack, it is impossible to destroy the defense ministry and JCS headquarters with a conventional missile. The problem is not distance. The British prime minister’s office and defense ministry building in London’s Downing Street are only 200 meters apart.
Even if a North Korean conventional missile hits the defense ministry and JCS building, it cannot destroy them. Given the remarkable inaccuracy of North Korean ballistic missiles, it can hardly be expected to hit a certain target like the presidential office. Its long-distance multiple rockets have over 200-meter margins of error and are not powerful enough to break the northern wall of the current defense ministry building as affirmed in the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. The bunkers at the ministry and JSC are safe from any attacks with conventional weapons. But the semi-basement bunker at the Blue House is quite susceptible to such attacks as it could collapse if directly hit by a North Korean missile.
In terms of effective execution of the military command, the defense ministry building is even better than the Blue House thanks to its safer defense system. At times of crisis, the president can listen to military commanders at the JCS nearby. The commander in chief can communicate with pilots flying military aircraft. Even now, the defense minister moves to the JCS if North Korea makes a provocation. It is hard to accept a potential security vacuum from the relocation of the presidential office to the ministry building.
Opponents can complain about the relocation of the defense ministry to the JCS building nearby after the relocation of the presidential office. But the ministry and JCS have existed in the same building before. I watched our Navy’s Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden in 2011 at the defense ministry’s bunker with officials of the JCS.
It was in 2012 that the JCS moved to its new building close to the defense ministry. The government built the JCS building larger than the ministry building to prepare for the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) to move into it. But since the CFC moved to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, the JCS has the building to itself and it is quite spacious. The JCS bunker is twice as large as the defense ministry bunker.
The JCS could better be relocated to the Capital Defense Command in Namtaeryeong, southern Seoul, which has the B1 bunker in it. The operation and intelligence departments of JCS are working 24/7 whether it be wartime or peacetime. But if a contingency occurs, the two departments must go into the B1 bunker fast, and it takes quite a while to get there from Yongsan, northern Seoul. The transition committee of President-elect Yoon said his new government will relocate the two departments of the JCS to the B1 bunker in the Capital Defense Command when he takes over.
The B1 bunker below Mt. Gwanak in southern Seoul is the place into which the JCS, defense ministry, the presidential office and other agencies move to establish a wartime government if the defense readiness condition (Defcon) is ratcheted up. You must pass through several heavy duty steel doors to enter the 900-meter-long bunker equipped with a situation room and many conference rooms. After a recent renovation, it can withstand a nuclear attack from North Korea.
Some oppose the relocation of the presidential office citing the need to reposition a number of Patriot missile units and anti-aircraft guns. But that’s not true. Patriot missiles deployed around Seoul are basically to defend the capital area, not the Blue House in particular. That’s why they are positioned on the top of mountains to cover the entire city. If North Korea fires ballistic missiles at Seoul, our Army intercepts them with Patriot missiles beyond Mt. Bukhan in northern Seoul, not in the skies over Seoul. Therefore, there’s no need to redeploy those missiles. A taskforce for the relocation in the transition committee dismissed the need to deploy additional anti-aircraft guns on top of high-rise buildings around the defense ministry because enough are deployed already.
In conclusion, the controversy over a potential security vacuum arising with the relocation of the presidential office is exaggerated. Appearing at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Park Jeong-hwan, vice chairman of the JCS, brushed off concerns about a security void. President Moon Jae-in’s security concerns are ill-grounded, for sure.