“What we write becomes public opinion” was a notorious one of bragging rights among the journos from the Chosun Ilbo (and the rest of the CJD ring: Joong-ang and Dong-a). Though their influence has been undermined considerably along with the advent of the internet media, they still maintain a substantial power over the crowd and the government, and they still enjoy displaying it.

Sometimes their arrogance lets themselves make a ludicrous argument only to disseminate their political propaganda and this is what happened last June, around the 10th anniversary of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong. The Chosun Ilbo laid a series of articles in pursuit of the truth of the battle. Some of them came up with a prefix EXCLUSIVE but in fact, they were platitudes badly polished up.

The Chosun’s bottom line is this: the Sunshine Policy and the Blue House diffident to North Korea are responsible for the deaths of our servicemen. Indeed there is a significant responsibility to the Blue House, given that the Blue House is the highest responsible office of national security issues. This is not the first time that the Chosun exclaims ‘take some commies down and everything will be set right then’ but this time their argument is not only invalid, groundless but also is harming the national defense, by deluding the public and the commanding officers of the military about what was the true cause of the failure in the battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002.

The birth of the tragedy was the order that is directly given by the Joint Chief of Staff, to draw the Chamsuri class patrol boat closer to the North Korean boat, which overrode the order of the commander of the Second Fleet to maintain the distance of 3 kilometers. When the patrol boat got closer to 150 meters, it took a fire from the NK boat, resulting in the deaths of the crew.

North Korean patrol boats have poor gunnery capabilities so it would have remained almost harmless if our boats had kept the distance of 3 to 4 kilometers, in which the 76 mm cannons of our patrol boats perform the best. Largely consisted of Army officers, the brains of the JCS that were ignorant of maritime operations overrode the on-scene commander, who was knowing and doing his job well, and gave a wrong order.

The truth and the responsibility that ought to follow was thoroughly covered up. When the Blue House began the fact-finding mission, the director of operation center at the JCS and the deputy commander in chief at the CFC didn’t mention the inappropriate order and put the blame upon the Navy. Later the director of operation center, Lee Sang-hee, was appointed to the first minister of defense in the newly-established MB government and the deputy commander in chief, Nam Jae-joon, joined the presidential camp of Park Geun-hye after serving as the Army Chief of Staff.

The Chosun may blame the DJ government for forbidding preemptive strike in the rules of engagement. But was this everything that led to the unnecessary sacrifice of our servicemen? Much greater vice of the Chosun series is that it teaches a false lesson to the military officers, who will be fighting the next battle.

From the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong to the ROKS Cheonan sinking and the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, those who were responsible did not take the responsibilities. Instead, they increasingly rely upon McCarthyite smears. It is not hard to see why–because they are incompetent and they want to eschew the responsibility. To win a battle is not a job of McCarthyites or red commies. It’s the military’s job and they suck at this.


The signing of the ROK-Japan General Security Of Military Information Agreement, the highly controversial military pact between SK (do I have to mention that the ROK is the official name of SK?)  and Japan, was postponed indefinitely just 40 minutes before its appointed signing ceremony. This case has clearly demonstrated what the republic lacks: democracy at least its procedural means, diplomatic dignity and a concept of citizen, upon which the republic is established.

The public’s resentment over the military pact needs no explanation: Japan colonized Korea for 35 years and lots of issues rooted in this colonial rule, including the comfort women issue, are still unresolved. However, if there may be actual benefits through the pact, we should consider it seriously and try to persuade the public. The MB government didn’t do none of these: it couldn’t prove its usefulness and didn’t tried to persuade the public–instead it tried to deceive the public by handling this surreptitiously as an impromptu item at the Cabinet meeting.

Before we go over more about its procedural issue, we should review the potential outcomes of the ROK-Japan GSOMIA. Japan’s information gathering assets outnumber that of SK. Sharing information seems to be expanding the capability of recognizing possible threats, especially from the north, for both countries. But in the recent cases, history tells us differently.

In 2009, Japan raised a couple of false alarms over the North Korean rocket launch. Not all information gathered is useful by itself. It requires expertise and experience to distill off the noises and extract the proper signals. Only after that there comes what we call intelligence. The flutter that heavily embarrassed the Japanese government shows its incompetence of that. Further than that, Japanese defense minister announced the recent NK rocket launch after the US and SK had announced the launch and its failure.

We used to think that we can attain more accurate intelligence when we combine various sources as much as possible. What we used to forget is that the noise, as well as the signal, amplifies as we put more sources into consideration. Bear in mind that SK still maintains DEFCON 4 even in the peacetime and imagine what would happen if shared information from Japan raises a false alarm in a case of a strained situation between the north and the south.

By dealing the pact clandestinely, the MB government again showed its anti-democratic nature internationally. President Lee Myung-bak himself tried to rush the pact through in his absence, undoubtedly to eschew criticism alone, again proved himself as the most miserable leader of the country ever.

At this point, I can’t resist myself to raise this question: is SK truly a republic? Wiktionary says a republic means “a state where sovereignty rests with the people or their representatives, rather than with a monarch or emperor.” It is astounding that the government was able to deal a critical issue like this pact alone, without an approval of the National Assembly. Even its deferring was due to the personal demand of the floor leader of the ruling party. A democratic procedure was nowhere to be found. The members of the Assembly, stop dabbling with no-work-no-pay principle, to which you won’t stick anyway, and get your own piece of meat right.

It was personally astounding to find out that even before establishing civilian control over the military, we have to establish the republic above all. From where should we start over?

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.

Originally posted on the July’s issue of Defense 21+ in Korean, I abridged the description of the event itself and focused on what the event means and implies.

At last, Brig. General Neil Tolley, USFK Special Operation Commander was fired after his slip of tongue that USFK was sending special operation forces to North Korea to spy on the NK’s underground military infrastructures. Details about what actually happened can be found on David Axe’s blog posts.

Where are you now, general?

My points about this happening are, firstly, is there a plan to send special forces to NK in case of contingencies? And secondly, annoyingly gruff manner of the public affairs office of USFK made things worse–and this wasn’t the first time.

Is there a plan to send special forces to NK?

Tim Shorrock, in an article posted on Foreign Policy In Focus, mentions the secret DIA report prepared in 1982. The subject of the report was SK Special Forces’ new wartime mission and the mission was to infiltrate “into the far northern provinces of North Korea near the Manchurian border.” This may be interesting to some readers, including myself, but his article is pointless and might be misleading. After all the rambling about the secret document, is his conclusion that anybody writing about U.S. Special Forces should look more deeply into the history of U.S.-Korea ties? Where is something that “may shed some light on a U.S. general’s outlandish claim?” Am I the only one who were expecting to be informed about a secret U.S. plan to send special forces to NK?

What the secret DIA report tells us is no more than how SK Special Forces were exploited politically to repress dissident citizens. The plan to insert two Special Forces brigades to the northern provinces of NK might have been put on to conceal its actual intention. It is not unreasonable to believe that there is a U.S. plan to put special forces to NK but his article tells nothing about it. A link-bait, I would say.

However, there was a secret reporting about sending special forces to NK. Not by the U.S. but SK. According to a military official, Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin surreptitiously reported on preparations for North Korean asymmetric threats to the President Lee in January last year. The preparations contain sending special forces to suppress North Korean missile sites and a review of the current strength of South Korean special forces, the source said.

Long before the rise of asymmetric threats, a consensus about Jus ad bellum, just cause for war was quite clear among the nations. Now the paradigm has been shifted and we perceive that from the controversies over preemptive war and, in recent times, Obama’s kill list. The line between preparedness and neurosis has never been thinner before.

We South Koreans still tend to think inside the old paradigm but the minister’s clandestine report shows us that even in SK, the paradigm has been shifted without any notices.

This wasn’t the first time the USFK PAO messed up

David Axe said, in his regret over the general’s firing, that the general “could have released a statement saying he had meant to speak hypothetically but was still quoted accurately” but he did only after having accused him of lying. Had he clarified his wording right after the report, he wouldn’t have given the audience an impression that he was fired because of his misleading words. This is definitely a failure of the public affairs office.

This wasn’t the first time the PAO caused a trouble. In last April, the defense correspondents’ association in SK, comprised of 25 media outlets, decided in its meeting to ask the USFK to change its authoritarian press guidelines.

The beginning of the discord was banning a reporter from The Korea Times from a press conference of Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. It seems that the underhand reason is that the reporter had turned down a PR team’s request to revise an interview article with an assistant chief of staff at the USFK. There was a serious distrust between the correspondents and the PR office at the USFK.

Stunning is that because of their distrust, defense correspondents decided to not change their misleading and exaggerated reports about the admiral’s comments. The reporter from The Korean Times was even considering write about the assistant chief of staff’s skepticism over SK’s push for defense reform, probably in revenge of the ban. Putting aside whether it’s ethical for journalists to refuse to correct their mischaracterized reports or to write in revenge, it is hard to say that the PAO is doing their job well.

The cases of the admiral and the brig. general are, basically, failures of media relations. On account of the rise of social media, even the slightest slip of the tongue stirs to the extent that history has never witnessed. The way military handles the media requires extreme care and swiftness nowadays and this is what I worry about the USFK.

The forementioned series of memoirs, which had quite a buzz on the web and is going to be published as a book, tells us a long tale of how a student, self-confident and eager to change the world, turns into a part of a bureaucratic machine that forgot its avowed cause long ago and now operates only for its own survival. It is not my aim to simply sum up the memoir but to put it up with my own criticism so I will skip the details of the machine described in the memoir.

What is the machine to which I refer? In every moments of the social reforms, student activists were at the forefront. And student activists rely upon their school (which equals to university) for their support, be it financial or personnel. Hence the student council, from where money goes in and out, is what they are after above all. As I said, there are roughly two major faction, NL and PD, among the student activists and this is where the clash happens. Each faction would do anything as long as it’s going to bring a council to them. And here rises the machine: raised under the banner of revolution, struggles to survive, against the power repressing it, at all cost. After paying all the cost, it couldn’t be the same as it was at the beginning.

The first irony that newborn activists encounter is to see an organization for people’s democracy discarding its own democracy. Everything the student activists have to do is sent down from the above, higher echelon and there are always discussions about guidelines that came down but no dissents or doubts are allowed. You just don’t know what a discussion is or you are entrapped by revisionist, reformist ideas which divide the movement into pieces, if you keep insisting your opinion.

The movement is under repression of the government so it is necessary to operate the organization secretly, they argue. To demand an organization that runs with transparency and collects opinions from the below is too naive. (They would have liked Leo Strauss a lot though I don’t think they would had had a chance to read–they were too busy to read!) All the decision is made by the others, a cabal whose member is completely unknown to ordinary activists, not a chairman or officials. From this, the separation of decision and responsibility, one of the most peculiar aspects of the SK activism arises. To decide is for the ones, to be imprisoned is for the others. Thus, though lots of chairmen and officials of Hanchongryun were arrested and imprisoned, the organization didn’t stagger at all. Behind the pretty figureheads, e.g. Lee Jung-hee and Kim Jae-yon in the recent case, a cabal decides where to put these pawns.

To crowd the other factions out is not a sign of autocracy or lust for power but a necessity for a unified line of the movement, which is advisable. They do literally everything, including blackmail and rigging an election as they did with the UPP primary, to win a student council election and after winning the council, they marginalize the other factions and their agenda, labor or human rights issues. They just concentrate on their own autonomous interests and demands.

What about the ordinary, non-activist students’ demands and issues? What they think their own demands are, in fact, not their own but resulted by distorted, superficial thoughts from the outside. Actually they don’t know what they really want and it is our duty to struggle for what they ought to want. (Again, Leo Strauss smiles!)

A young, enthusiastic activist is soon to confront this kind of contradictions. She sees what she believes to be just is in conflict with what the organization does and demands. She has been often disillusioned for what she already saw but fellow activists’ enthusiasm and sacrifices kept her going on. Now she stands on the edge, witnessing a huge rupture of the road, and has to decide–to withdraw or to take a leap of faith. The road to our great cause is not flat, in regard to both logic and stability of life, and this wouldn’t be the last time even if she has been in a similar situation several times before. Each time she takes a leap of faith, gradually she is getting away from where the ordinary people is living in.

A new Prometheus featurette: presenting a brand new way of brainsucking

Although the excessively violent protests in the late 90s weakened its status and sympathies from the public, the machine ran perfectly well, at the expense of the lives of the activists. Burdened with hectic schedules from the above, student activists had to sacrifice all their life for the official business: rallying, council activities, meetings and recruiting freshmen. There is no room for reflection and study even though they are students in fact. As ones who couldn’t handle them anymore leave, burdens weigh more on the shoulder of those who are left . Those who remain the last are the ones who took the leaps the most, who were hurt and broken the worst.

The notorious Yonsei University Incident in 1996
(click the image to read more about the incident from Korean Wikipedia)

The day an activist confronts her own reality will come in any moment after all. Times have changed. They sway back and forth, between being legal and illegal, a mass organization and a cabal. There is always a serious situation going on when one is inside the faction but outside it, a whole different world lies behind. However, it is hard to see the reality and accept errors; it is a total denial of her youth. So she tries to fill the holes in her mind with a form of a life of an activist until she finds out that she is not able to fill them anymore, then she leaves the movement. (source, in Korean)

The case of the student activists is not an exception of the organizational problem, one of the major problems SK has. Which is also ruining corporations’ productivity and creativity. SKoreans work the longest in the world and its strictly inflexible organizational cultures are one of the main obstructions of its development into a knowledge based economy. What we are witnessing in the current UPP feud is its result a long time coming in politics. More crises like this, not only political but also economic or social, will be approaching henceforth and our future will be brightened or darkened, depending on how we deal with the issues. Indeed, time will set things right after all but I’m not sure if I can see them set right alive.

All of a sudden, I have found out that I was living in a leftist country. Every time I go to gym and hit the treadmill I see that every news channel covering the current UPP feud all day along. As one of those who think that SK needs to realign its general political stance a bit to the left, should I praise this abrupt national attention? I’m not just being sarcastic but, in a manner, I do mean it. All the news outlet are shedding HID Xenon light on those who were at the edge of the SK politics just a few weeks ago. Only worse than being hated is being neglected. Today’s discordance might lead the public into a recognition of progressive politicians at last–at least they’ve got a spotlight now.

So was the most hopeful view of mine concerning the feud until I finally learned about what the non-factioners are struggling against. The Gyeonggi Dongbu Alliance was, in fact, more than a run-to-the-mill splinter group, as which I simply thought of them before I knew their origin, history and culture. It is the dregs of the history of the SK democratization activism unleashed after all.

I began my higher education in the early 2000s, when student activism, which had been playing key role in  the history of the SK democratization activism since the 80s, was seriously weakened in the wake of new millenium. At least formally the country was democratized with the advent of the Sixth Republic and right after that people seemed to be losing interest with student activism–even student themselves. Student activists were virtually extinct in my alma mater in the era when I entered. Freedom fighters for democracy, rallying off a campus and throwing pieces of broken precast pavers and vases–an activist slang for Molotovs–to the police, were like dinosaurs to me.

The student activism scene of South Korea would be roughly divided into the two major lines: National Liberation and People’s Democracy. It is not my aim to elaborate on the difference between them and neither am I able to. But in brief, NL puts national–one of the peculiarities of the SK mentality is that it isn’t possible to distinguish between what is national and what is racial–issue ahead of everything and has a strict militaristic–no questions, doubts to orders from above–hierarchy, while PD underlines class conflict in every social problem and is relatively open to debate.

More in detail and reality, NL sees the US as the root of the fundamental social contradiction of SK, who colonized SK politically, culturally, economically, militarily. Thus, in order to remedy the problem, we should oust the empire from the peninsula to achieve self-reliance. Such a hostility towards the US couldn’t gain popularity until the Gwangju Democratization Movement broke out in May 18th, 1980. The connivance of the US that let Chun Doo-hwan government massacre the innocent citizens of Gwangju infuriated the nation. A lot of people who had a friendly view to the US turn themselves against it. A series of arson attacks and sit-in protests in the US culture centers among the cities of Gwangju, Busan, Daegu and Seoul showed the rise of the new hatred as well. From the 80s and through the decline of the PD line after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the NL line remained as the major force of the student activism in SK.

Friendly tug-of-war between Hanchongryun students and a US soldier
(click on the image to read the Wikipedia article about the largest NL organzation)

Given that the anti-American agenda was the top priority, they had an ally that was also a role model: the North. Although the NL liners were very enormous in not only its size but its breadth hence they weren’t so monomorphous in its philosophy, a lot from those who were in the leadership were following the Juche ideology and even allegedly took orders, since there is only a single legitimate revolutionary government according to the Juche idea, from the North.

This specific part of the history later raises the so-called pro-North issues numerous times by the conservative news outlets, especially the Chosun. Based on part fact and part their wishful thinking rather than fact, their own brand of McCarthyism proved itself to be effective still in the 21st century. But it is also undeniable that the NL’s eccentric, sometimes even bizarre organizational culture did lead itself into disintegration.

Thus had I understood so far but not knowing how exactly their culture was and why because they are dinosaurs to me. A recent series of articles on a populous baseball community written by a former NL activist shed light on what I couldn’t have known.

(to be continued)

Park Jung-hee saying, “Had I brought my daughter into the scene earlier, I wouldn’t have had to be a dictator myself.” and “No big deal, democracy.”
(click the image to see the original cartoon)

In a single cut, the web celebrity cartoonist’s depiction right after the last month’s general election speaks it all. As the cartoon pictures, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the late dictator, has definitely positioned herself to the throne by winning the election in such a disadvantageous situation.

(Or maybe it wasn’t that much disadvantageous. The poll result showed a serious discrepancy of public opinions between the capital area and and the rest. Social networks would have been an echo chamber of the capital area.)

It would be unreasonable to criticize a person for being someone’s daughter but she does not repent her father’s legacy at all. She once described the May 16 coup d’état as “the revolution to save the country.” Thanks to her father’s wealth, which was accumulated by force, she didn’t have to earn a living for her lifetime. Issues related to the private school foundations, which was plundered by her father from entrepreneurs including the founder of Samsung and she headed of, will continue to catch up her way to the Blue House.

Her remark on March that she have been feeling sorry for those who were accidentally suffered during the industrialization era, again, provoked immediate criticism for justifying her father’s dictatorship. We can obviously see that she does not regret her legacy at all and sadly, it seems that that’s why she is the most prevailing presidential candidate today. I felt the same embarrassment years ago when I found out that Imelda Marcos was elected to Congress twice after her coming back from exile.

Her father’s whispering in the cartoon, “no big deal, democracy,” makes me ponder what democracy really is for former colonist countries including SK, those who had to implement democracy whether they wanted it or not. Although I don’t think that Heidegger’s doubt about democracy is false or meaningless, my doubt about democracy in the third world is not on a level of democracy itself but of an institution that wasn’t constituted autogenously.

Somewhere on the earth, there goes a holy war to implement the only solution that is called democracy but as we have seen through history it doesn’t seem to be a universal remedy. There has to be, always, someone who takes advantage of newly grafted institution among these recently conquered territories. In short, it would be hard to grant a success for democracy if a voter turnout is dangling around, tolerantly, 50 per cent. From which could it advocate its legitimacy?

The last general election’s turnout was 54.3 per cent. And that of the French presidential election a few weeks ago was about 80 per cent. I don’t see any reason to be optimistic about the new French government but at least it has its own legitimacy anyway. Rulers are ruling, but where is the legitimacy and where is your democracy?