Recalling Gen. Kim Kwan-jin

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Recalling Gen. Kim Kwan-jin

Chang Se-jeong

The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

It is impossible to say whether public safety or national security is more important. The recent death of 156 people during a stampede when 130,000 people flocked to Halloween celebrations in Itaewon, Seoul, on the night of Oct. 29 was a case of failed public safety. And when we look at the reality of national security, it is hard to predict our immediate future.

On the eve of the Itaewon tragedy, North Korea fired short-range ballistic missiles, one of which flew across the de facto inter-Korean maritime border for the first time. On Nov. 3, the North fired an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017. Our national security crisis is serious enough that the North may launch a nuclear missile any time, but the people in the South are numb to it.

During the five years of the Moon Jae-in administration, which was extremely conciliatory to the North and China, many worried that a rift was developing in the Korea-U.S. alliance, the basis of our national security. Shortly after the Yoon Suk-yeol administration was launched, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Seoul in May to shore up the alliance, but it seems it wasn’t enough to quiet the security concerns fueled by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s declaration in September to legalize the North’s right to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons.

As national security crisis grew serious, consider Kim Kwan-jin, known as “forever a soldier.” Born in Imsil, North Jeolla in 1949, he spent 40 years of his life serving in the military after entering the Korea Military Academy in 1968 and leaving the service as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in March 2008. He was the last defense minister of the Lee Myung-bak administration and the first defense minister of the Park Geun-hye government. Kim also served as chief of the national security office in Park’s presidential office. Including those jobs, he dedicated 47 years of his life to national security.

After Park was impeached and removed from office, Kim was the first target of the Moon administration’s campaign of “eradicating accumulated evils.” Since Moon took office in May 2017, he has been suffering an ordeal. On Oct. 27, the Supreme Court acquitted him of political involvement and abuse of power charges and sent the case back to the high court for a retrial. Although his honor was partly restored, his court battle is not over.

Kim’s friends said he wants to lay bare the truth at all costs. His defense lawyers said Kim had issued a legitimate order to the Cyber Command to counter the North’s Internet campaign of posting massive comments critical of a plan to build a naval base in Jeju. The prosecution had indicted Kim on charges of ordering the military to post political comments, arguing that 8,862 out of 780,000 comments, or 0.01 percent, generated between 2012 and 2013 were political. According to the lawyers, a big data analysis showed that political comments were actually scarce during election periods.

During the trial, no one testified that Kim had ordered the Cyber Command to post comments. The lawyers also said the 8,862 supposedly political comments were a mere fraction of the 88.40 million comments that were posted during the online rigging by former Democratic Party (DP) Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, who conspired with a power blogger to support Moon during the 2017 presidential election, for which Kim was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison last year.

Observers said it was for political revenge that the Moon administration went after Kim. He was hated the most by North Korea, said the lawyers.

After the North’s torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that year, President Lee named Kim defense minister. Upon taking the post, Kim vowed to create a strong military that would fight and win. “When the North attacks us, don’t ask me whether we should fire back. Take action first and report to me later,” Kim told soldiers. He decided to procure 40 F-35 bombers, a great threat to North Korea, and to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a decision protested by the DP. The North Korean military used photos of his face as shooting exercise targets.

While Kim’s hands were tied by five-year-long investigations and trials, the leaderships of the National Security Office, the Ministry of National Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Security Command and the Defense Intelligence Command were all incapacitated one after another after unreasonable appointments were made. While the Moon administration promoted a false peace, the public lost a sense of national security. During the Moon presidency, the police and the Board of Audit and Inspection tried to accuse Kim of receiving bribes from the defense industry, but he was cleared of all charges. When will Kim be able to prove his innocence and completely restore his honor? As our national security is shaken, more people should recall his name.
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