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[Editorial] Do not lower guard

Troop drawdown, service curtailment unsettling given little progress in NK denuclearization

The recently finalized military reform plan causes concern about the weakening of defense. According to “Defense Reform 2.0” reported to President Moon Jae-in on Friday, the current 618,000-strong military will be downsized to 500,000 by 2022, shedding 118,000 troops from the Army. The length of mandatory service for Army draftees will be shortened from the current 21 months to 18 months by 2022.

Given the low birthrate, military strength is bound to shrink. At the same time North Korea has completed nuclear and missile programs. If the service term is curtailed in this situation, one cannot but worry about the nation’s defense capabilities.

North Korea has 1.2 million troops, who serve for about 10 years. No matter how modernized their weapons are, it is questionable if 500,000 soldiers serving for 18 months can beat 1.2 million.

It is understandable for the Ministry of National Defense to try to keep up with demographic changes and the trend toward high-tech weapons and crack units. It is plausible that the ministry says it can make the military strong by securing cutting-edge weapons and building up elite units around noncommissioned officers. But the point is the speed of transition. Weapons must be upgraded as fast as possible, but it is easier said than done. To secure state-of-the-art military assets, sometimes the ministry may have to go through difficult processes such as getting approval from the US Congress. Some weapons will take a long time to develop. If troop numbers are to be reduced, the ministry would do well to proceed with a troop drawdown gradually to minimize the time gap with the buildup of weapons systems to replace troops.

The blueprint reaffirmed a plan to establish a “three-axis” system to fend off North Korean missile threats, but the system is thought to be weaker than before in substance.

Though US-North Korea negotiations are underway to dismantle the North’s nuclear programs, the Korean Peninsula is still a flash point where the South and North point guns at each other. If troops’ numbers are reduced and their service period curtailed when little has changed in the security environment, the country’s ability to respond to a crisis will inevitably shrink. A troop drawdown will not come too late if it is done while keeping the balance with the North and considering defense preparedness.

Pyongyang has refrained from provocations since the April 27 inter-Korean and the June 12 US-North Korean summits. However, denuclearization of the North has not made headway as quickly as anticipated upon the promise of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It is unsettling that the government is trying to advance the declaration of the end of the Korean War even as denuclearization has made little progress. The declaration can threaten the justification for existence of the UN Command and US forces in Korea.

Nevertheless, the ministry is preparing to pull back forward units near the Demilitarized Zone in a bid to ease military tension. This gives the impression that the South is too impetuous.

In an incident showing military hierarchy has crumbled, the defense minister bickered publicly with ranking officers of the Defense Security Command over the unit’s martial law plan. Military leadership and discipline are worrisome.

The US House of Representatives on Thursday passed a defense authorization bill that restricts any drawdown of American troops in South Korea. The troops’ number can be reduced below 22,000 only after the secretary of defense certifies that such a reduction is in the national security interest of the US and will not significantly undermine the security of US allies in the region. South Korea needs to reflect on America’s bipartisan attitude toward national security.

The armed forces constitute the last bastion of national security. They must be stronger than any other organization. No matter how the situation changes, national security must be kept tight. The military must not forget that North Korean threats still linger.