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Defense Ministry flounders over N.K. drone commotion

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Published : 2014-04-10 20:55
Updated : 2014-04-10 20:55

The South Korean Army’s unmanned surveillance aircraft Songgolmae takes off for a test flight at an Army base in Yangju, north of Seoul, Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
For security authorities, prudence and restraint are the most crucial virtues ― particularly when they are dealing with an unpredictable, provocative adversary like North Korea.

But this week, South Korea’s Defense Ministry seemed to have forgotten those virtues as it struggled to mitigate the criticism over its failure to detect three drones, presumably from the communist state.

The ministry on Tuesday revealed a series of key reconnaissance assets including its unmanned aerial vehicles, which it has long kept as “military secrets.” The assets include Geumgang and RF-16 reconnaissance aircraft, and two indigenous drones.

The ministry went a step further by announcing that Pyongyang currently operates some 300 unmanned military planes. It has long been reluctant to reveal its level of knowledge about the North Korean military as it could help the North find alternatives to evade Seoul’s intelligence networks.

The unveiling of all these came just a day after President Park Geun-hye denounced the military for “problems” with the country’s air defense and its ground-based reconnaissance system. This is the reason why critics argue the revelations of what it called “military secrets” are partly intended to placate the presidential office.

The ministry has said that it revealed to the media its monitoring assets to show off its deterrence capabilities against the communist state and to help ease rising public concerns over national security. But the revelations seemed to have further eroded public confidence in the military.

The ministry has also been under fire for its handling of the drone crashes.

When the first drone was found on March 24 in Paju, close to the Demilitarized Zone in Gyeonggi Province, it did not put much weight into the possibility that the North deployed the drone for military purposes. Some argued that the ministry apparently wanted to downplay the drone case as it would bring the weak points of the South’s air defense to the fore.

After the second drone was found on Baengnyeongdo Island on March 31, the ministry then said that chances were high that the drones were sent by the North.

As the criticism surged for the drones having filmed the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, marine facilities on the western border islands and potential infiltration routes, the ministry appeared to be downplaying the case again.

The ministry said that the “entry-level” drones did not pose any serious military threats. It also defended itself by repeating that current radar systems were not designed to detect small irregular flying objects.

On Friday, the ministry is to announce the interim result of its probe into the crashed drones. The announcement comes amid keen political attention on the security issue ahead of the local elections slated for June.

Security experts argue that rather than trying to fend off the public criticism for a “porous” defense, the South Korean military should take a period of extensive soul-searching and thoroughly review its defense posture.

They also say that it should exercise more prudence and restraint in handling the unpredictable North Korea.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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