There is a now-classic saying in SK that everyone becomes a professional military analyst right after having served his duty. In a country where every male citizen is obliged to serve the duty (however this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone actually serves), sometimes things military become funny–probably this wouldn’t happen often in where conscription isn’t in implementation. (Almost) everyone has served the duty and shares experience, memories and knowledge so (almost) everyone has an opinion, everyone has something to say about military issues. Unfortunately, this used to be grumbling, which lacks a political, strategic and diplomatic perspective. I don’t blame them at all. We don’t need everyone to be a strategist.
Still there has to be someone, better-informed and with her own philosophy, who presents such a perspective to the public. Be it a journalist, a pundit or an expert, we need her anyway. But this is what the South Korean defense journalism lacks.
First of all, it is hard to find a dedicated defense reporter in the SKorean journalism scene. In most media outlets, journalists work in rotation. How can we expect professionalism from a journalist who will be reassigned to a city desk two or three years later? Working in rotation might makes sense to civil servants, in case of corruption, but journalists, at least in a certain department, are required professionalism. Because it is their job to inform the public, they ought to know more and better.
However, the situation does not mitigate when it comes to a handful of dedicated reporters from the privileged outlets. They just can’t be differentiated from the rotating ones, reiterating press releases without an analysis. To put it bluntly, I wonder what they do exactly, except playing a round of golf courses or hitting hell of the booze with the MoD officials.
For a recent example, a dedicated defense reporter from the Chosun reported that the USFK commander Gen. James Thurman unofficially proposed to keep the Combined Forces Command even after the handover of full operational command of Korean troops in (hopefully) Dec. 2015. This means a lot, especially to the US-loving and Roh-and-DJ-hating conservatives, since the most conspicuous proof of the US-Korean alliance is a tripwire that named the US Army around the MDL.
The Chosun covered this story in the front for two days in a row, emphasizing its significance. But how did they come to believe that a local forces commander can affect the policy that reached agreement between the summits of two countries? The MoD and USFK both deny the report after the Chosun releases and it seems that the Chosun stretched too far with the general’s private comment.
The issue of professionalism also matters here. What if the reporter in question (he is the most renowned defense reporter in SK) had pondered a bit more about how much a local forces commander’s opinion, even though the commander has four stars on his cap, can affect upon the US foreign policy? Or maybe the desk might have pushed too far on this, considering the tone of the Chosun on the US-Korea relation.
The serious lack of professionalism in the SK defense journalism let the ipse dixit just flow around the public. The establishment of full civilian control in SK is still a long way from where we stand and the role of journalism as a watchdog cannot be exaggerated at this point of time. Even the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes can’t be an issue here–there are no proper watchmen at the first place.