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Monthly Archives: April 2012

The first three days of this week were my second reserve duty training. I have absolutely no idea what being in a reserve duty is in other country but here in South Korea, reserve duty training is far from being heroic or serious.

Typical SKorean Reserves

Obviously this picture is staged but shows exactly what reserves are in SK

You can see in almost everywhere in the South Korean culture describing reserves like the above: in a sloppy and faded combat uniform, dozing at a training session, reluctant to follow orders, just eager to get home as soon as possible. I guess you would find this so confusing, considering that the South Koreans are living in a divided nation in which sometimes a military crisis break out from the north and that a significant number of the SK citizens served their duty in the military. Why?

There are too many reserve forces to be under appropriate control. According to the IISS, the number  of the SK reserve forces is estimated to 8 million, ranking third, below Russia and North Korea, but I think the IISS counted the Civil Defense Corps besides, which are rather a paramilitary than a military–the more correct number would be 3 million, as the Chosun reported in 2010. It’s five times bigger than the active duty forces.

There always lacks active duty personnel to get them under proper control. 1993’s Yonchon Reserve Forces Training Camp Explosion, the worst accident ever happened to the reserve forces showed the seriousness of the problem at the expense of 20 lives. A crew for a 155mm artillery is usually constituted by 8 to 9 servicemen but at the time of the accident there were 23 reserves and instructors for the reserves were only 3, and moreover 2 of them had no expertise in artillery at all so there couldn’t be any proper guidance and safety education.

Lack of proper guidance and seriousness is not the only problem with the reserve forces. The revision of the Homeland Reserve Forces Act in 1980 includes additions to the mission of the reserve forces and one of them is “to quell an armed riot or what is concerned to aggravate in the area,” (the actual expression the act employs is an oxymoron) which could harm freedom of assembly. The revision was half a year after the Gwangju Democratization Movement.

Gwangju, 1980

During training sessions, reserved servicemen were often indoctrinated by so-called national security lecturers, the majority of whom are retired colonels, with their weird version of far right ideology, which opposes to the transfer of wartime operational control and supports the KORUS FTA–I don’t think this is a typical way of far right thinking. In my recent training session, the lecturer was substituted with a civilian who has no military background since the former lecturer provoked a strong protest from the servicemen with his explicit expression of his own political opinion regarding  the KORUS FTA. The current reserve force system could hardly evade an accusation of its use of political propaganda.

Republic of Korea Reserve Forces was established in April 1968, 3 months after the Blue House Raid, which was unsuccessfully conducted by a North Korean commando unit to assassinate the then president Park Chung-hee. The Threat From The North rhetoric was so invincible that no one couldn’t actually dissolve or fundamentally innovate ancien régime although several prominent politicians had promised to do it, including 2 former presidents: Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. Kim Young-sam proposed a bill to abolish the reserve forces right after the establishment and Kim Dae-jung the young presidential candidate at his 40s pledged to abolish it.

But it was too late when they came into office. Over 20 years passed and now a lot of livelihood depend on the reserve forces: reserved officers in command of battalions, so-called national security lecturers, owners of restaurants nearby of training camps and those who make a living from transit of reserved servicemen… (Same goes on with the private education issues: hagwon workers whose number is estimated to over a million.)

The biggest obstacle to reform is the military, especially the army. Right after the dissolution of the Vietnam Headquarters in 1973, the then president Park Chung-hee ordered to establish the Third ROK Army in order to preserve stars, which are going to disappear with the dissolution of the Vietnam Headquarters. Consequently the Second ROK Army in the rear had to be reorganized bizarrely to maintain the number of the active duties. Commanders of divisions, regiments and battalions are the active duty officers but commanders and members of lower echelons e.g. platoons and squads consist of the reserved servicemen. In other words, they are substantial military forces only if the reserve forces are mobilized.

The Military Reform Plan 2020 aims to reduce the size of the reserved forces by half but it has been staggering after the establishment of the Lee government. Who will pursue the reform in spite of opposition of the military? Will the next government be able to do that? Unfortunately, I learned through my service days that nothing is going to be changed until something–calamity, usually– happens.

* Reference: Han Hong-gu, The History of Republic Of Korea, 2003

Old media power feels that they are being undermined by emerging media, which is usually called social network. On occasions, the public exchanges each other’s opinion and empowers a movement without any mediation of the old media, so their woes are not insubstantial. But as we saw in the last general election, the power of the established old media still rules over the nation. In my opinion, we saw the nation’s political view is now also polarized between the capital area and the other area. Did the economic polarization beget the polarization of the political view? Well, it remains to be seen.

Anyway the oldies are doing their best to keep the public away from those abhorrent social media, especially Twitter, which drew political forces the most since the Seoul mayoral by-election. The Big 3 newspapers, Chosun, Joongang, Donga, which I would like to name CJD, used to describe the social media (but they always refer to Twitter) as an epicenter of unconfirmed, unscrupulous rumors and here comes the recent case:

The Philippine-born naturalized Korean citizen Jasmine Lee, who became a Saenuri Party lawmaker, has been the victim of malicious attacks on the Internet since the April 11 general election. People have been posting malicious comments about her on Twitter and other social networks, somehow linking her to the grisly murder of a young woman recently killed by an ethnic Korean from China.

“This is the true face of multiculturalism which is bleeding Korean society dry,” one commenter wrote. “We will see a rise in marriages for money,” wrote another, denigrating mixed-race marriages involving Korean men and foreign brides.

from an op-ed of the Chosun Ilbo, April 17th 2012
(emphasis mine)

Right after a series of reports of the malicious comments was poured by major news outlets, people began wondering where the comments are, because almost none of them didn’t see them. Some independent bloggers pointed out that the tweets that the outlets quoted were from suspicious users, whose follower is only one or whose activity is so irregular that may be suspected as straw men. And what the outlets presented as evidence were, in fact, condemning xenophobic comments, which are almost insubstantial but were reported by the media.

In fact, this tweet was meant to ridicule the Chosun report and the ruling New Frontier Party.
(source: OhmyNews)

Right on time, the NFP issued an official comment denouncing “a violation of human rights on social minorities.” The Ddanzi Ilbo, alternative online newspaper whose head is the mastermind behind the I am a Weasel podcast, reported that the twitter handles that were used to retweet the campaign tweets from the then GNP (the GNP changed its name to NFP last February), again, retweeted the xenophobia report.

This case reveals much of the current social situation of SK, in regard of what might be called social media awareness. I don’t think that the Chosun and the NFP think that they would convince those who are using Twitter. They are aiming to those who don’t use it. It is said that over a half of the SNS users are living in the capital area. And the result of the last general election shows that even if the ruling party loses the capital area, they can make up from the other.

The old regionalism is, although slightly, fading away. But SK is being divided into another two. At first it was economic and now it’s becoming political and generational.

I clearly remember when I first received the news 2 years ago—I was in a KTX train heading to Daegu, at which my last assignment was. Then I was so easy that I had stopped counting how many days left with my mandatory military service. Before I left Seoul, I gave a goodbye kiss to my girlfriend in a platform at the Seoul station.

It was near Daejeon, I guess, when a strange line saying “a military ship sunk in the East Sea” appeared on a in-cabin LCD screen. I felt so weird but I didn’t think it would be an offensive from the North—there was no reason to do that at the moment , it seemed.

As you can possibly imagine, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the Cheonan sinking: disputes over whom to blame, the cause of the sinking, contradictory evidences and conspiracy theories, cries of the bereaved and lies of the government debunked, etc. And above all, this still is the present progressive tense.

I am not in a position to judge which one is true or false, there are tons of evidences conflicting with one another and they seem to be a bit manipulated by the presenter’s own political slant. Hence it is hard to believe things prima facie. Anyway, I learned something by last 2 years.

Still I think there are lots of things can be disputed to the official announcement of the government and its arguments. So I was quite shocked when a famed defense blogger Galrahn said that the objectors to the official announcement are like the 9/11 truthers and the birthers. Were they so stubborn and their points so ridiculous?

But soon I realized that there are not much information and objections in English. Almost all of the objections and disputes were only confined to the Korean-speaking communities. In other words, the media is not doing their job properly.

Newspapers are still affecting a lot to the public opinion but many of them are so politically inclined even to the extent of ignoring journalism ethics—manipulating the facts, glossing things over. Do you remember the Chosun reporting of a human torpedo that might sink down the Cheonan right after the incident? As you can read from a tone of this Wired Danger Room post about the Chosun report, this is just ridiculous. Can you believe that this is from the nation’s number one newspaper? They don’t usually provide their stupidest articles in English but for some reason I will never understand, they decided to provide it in English.

Foreign bloggers and media outlets who don’t have their own correspondents or sources heavily reply upon the major Korean media but they don’t tell you everything they actually reports in Korean. If you manage yourself to read their editorials, you would be shocked by their arrogance and intolerance—especially the Chosun, I mean. The problem is that I have almost never seen a foreign blogger or defense magazine citing any other than the Chosun. All the quite meaningful and legitimate dispute and objections are confined in a language barrier. That’s one of the reasons why I started blogging in (terrible) English.

Above all, the Cheonan sinking is not, as the US beef protest in 2008 wasn’t merely about the beef itself as well, merely about what was the cause or whom to blame. At stake was a basic attitude of the government to the people and the government, again, horribly failed us as it did in 2008: incompetence and lies soon to be debunked, only to undermine its reliability. Those who are responsible for the sinking in our armed forces have been even promoted rather than being punished, while military judicial officers, who submitted an appeal to the constitutional court that the military banning some subversivebooks is violating human rights, were suspended from their duty and some of them were even discharged (later the court ruled the discharge to be illegal however). How could the people trust the government and the military?

One of the severest problems the current government has is its lack of serious approach to the national security issues. A government that generally regarded as conservative like the current one usually takes great care of national security—of course they do for they are conservative! National security would be definitely their No. 1 agenda—until the coming of this government.

As far as I remember, the first heavy blow to the high-ranking military officers who were expecting uplift was the case of theLotte World Tower. Lotte’s phallic aspiration to build, in Seoul, one of the tallest buildings in the world (it would be the fourth in the world, if things go as planned) was soon confronted with opposition of the Air Force, arguing that such a tall building might jeopardize the security of the aircraft that take off from and landing to the Seoul Airport, at which most of the VIPs visiting SK land. The military came to find out how much business-friendly the President is. The Seoul Airport has to rebuild its airstrip with an altered angle in order to minimize—still there are opinions contending that it will be still dangerous even if the angle of the airstrip is altered—a risk.

The most controversial case was the confrontation between the minister and the vice-minister of the MoD, over a budget issue, in 2009. This case presented a serious incompetence of the current government in civil control of the military. A retired army general recently said in a debate, which was held by the Defense 21+, that this alone should lead to impeaching the President.

The lack of seriousness in the national security issues continues. The MoD announced that the government plans to shoot down the NK rocket, which is planned to be launched in the next month. Anyone who possesses the least the knowledge of the current air defense system in SK would say it is ridiculous plan. Even if we can “hit a bullet with a bullet,” the government ought to consider and adjust the level of speech in case of the missing. There is no way that the idea came from the military—they are not that out of mind to bet on the obviously losing side.

So, why would the government do such a risky betting? Kim Jong-dae, the editor in chief of the Defense 21+ told me that we should turn to what the government was telling us before the announcement. Just before the visit of the POTUS, government was raising the issue of revising the missile range pact, which limits SKorean ballistic missile’s maximum range to 300km, but there were no actual discussions concerning the revision after the summit meeting—and the President Obama politely evaded the issue. As we saw, there were no discussions beforehand, the basic basic of diplomacy and it was a cheap, frivolous trick for the general election.

After having failed to induce a meaningful discussion from the US, the government finally overreached itself to make up by the announcement but the government will end up itself into a deteriorated situation, said Mr. Kim.

It is unlikely for the military to succeed to intercept the NK rocket and, due to the frivolous announcement, the military and the government couldn’t avoid a massive rebuke from all the nation. In my guess, there lies a possibility for NK to move up the launch date in order to affect the result of the general election. Usually the NK issues were exploited by the conservative governments to affect the voter’s mind and rig the polls but this time is different. The government is too incompetent in everything, even the panic button of all the conservative regimes is useless for them.