Wednesday’s surprise nomination of Navy chief Adm. Choi Yoon-hee as the new Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has raised hopes for enhanced maritime defense and inter-service collaboration in the Army-dominated military.
In the first reshuffle of top brass since the Park Geun-hye government took office in February, Choi was named to lead the JCS. Should he secure parliamentary approval, Choi would become the first Navy official to take the highest active-duty post.
His nomination is expected to mitigate continuing criticism that top public posts for security, intelligence and defense, such as the chiefs of the spy agency and presidential national security office, are dominated by former and incumbent Army generals.
Experts have long argued that Army generals dominating top decision-making posts within the government and military have undermined cooperation among the three armed services and efficiency in military operations.
Cooperation between the different branches of the military has emerged as a key issue since the Navy corvette Cheonan sank in a North Korean torpedo attack in March 2010. The Defense Ministry has since pushed for reform, but it fizzled out due to variables including inter-service rivalries and a lack of political attention.
Analysts say that should he be appointed, Choi could bring about some change in the Army-centric military and bolster naval responsibilities, particularly when tension remains high in waters near the Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean sea border.
The NLL has been a flashpoint as Pyongyang does not recognize it as a sea border, as it was unilaterally drawn by the then-U.S.-led U.N. Command after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Attention is also being drawn to whether Choi would step up efforts to bolster blue-water capabilities to handle not only North Korean threats but also a broader range of maritime challenges from overseas.
During his stint as the Navy chief since October 2011, Choi has vowed to change the paradigm of wartime theater operations for the Navy to assume an active, leading combat role.
The Navy currently would undertake only a supporting role in case of a peninsular contingency due in large part to a lack of naval assets, while the Army and Air Force would play central roles in a possible armed conflict.
Since the late 1980s, the Navy had used the slogan “blue-water navy” to represent its long-distance operations to protect sea lines of communication and maritime peace in the region and beyond, and secure untapped maritime resources.
But after Pyongyang’s sinking of the Cheonan, the Navy was seen reluctant to mention oceanic operations to avoid giving the impression that it was neglecting littoral defense against the North.
As neighboring countries are vying to secure and expand maritime resources including oil and gas based on their incremental naval might, security experts have called for bolstered naval power.
Choi is well known for his role in stabilizing the Navy after the sinking of the Cheonan that killed 46 sailors, and pushing for naval reform focusing on troop morale and readiness posture.
Since being commissioned in 1977, Choi has served in various operational and educational posts including the chief of naval operations, principal of the Naval Academy and head of naval personnel management. He also received education from the U.S. on anti-submarine warfare, military policy and other security issues.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)