An “Inconvenient Truth” of the Reserve Forces

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


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