A US Marine honor guard, holding a case wrapped in the UN flag in both arms, steps out of a military cargo plane and walks to a US Army sergeant major in full dress. The noncommissioned officer stoops forward, receives the case and then approaches one of several vans lined up nearby. US Army, Navy and Air Force honor guards follow one after the other to deliver the small coffins to the vehicles on the ground. Hundreds of service persons salute to the silent procession only accompanied by taps played by a sole trumpeter.
This was the scene I saw on TV when the remains of 55 US soldiers killed in the Korean War arrived at Osan Air Base from the North Korean port of Wonsan last week. It was the first journey home of American war dead since the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12.
US media reported the beginning of arduous work to identify the bones of fallen soldiers at laboratories in Hawaii and Delaware, chiefly by comparing DNA data collected from the remains recovered in North Korea with those sent by living relatives of troops missing in the Korean War. The Department of Defense is known to have secured DNA samples from 92 percent of the relatives of missing soldiers, numbering 7,700.
The luckier ones are identified within several days but some cases of forensic DNA examinations continue for years. Americans will wait patiently while more remains are collected from the hills of North Korea, returned to the US after time-consuming negotiations on procedural details, individually identified with state-of-the-art technology and are finally buried in Arlington National Cemetery or resting places closer to home.
I admire and am even envious of the American style of paying respect to those who died for their country. The United States has been victorious in most wars it fought since it gained independence but some wars ended inconclusively like in Korea, Vietnam and in the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, the tradition of national reverence for the war dead lives on, reflecting people’s undying trust in the protectors of their families and country.
On the same day, the 65th anniversary of the signing of Armistice Agreement, and during the same evening news hour, I watched nearly 100 top brass of the Korean Armed Forces salute President Moon Jae-in at the start of a rare commanders’ meeting at the Blue House. The conference hall reverberated with the sound of “Chung-Seong” as the “stars” pledged loyalty to the country and, more immediately, to the commander-in-chief.
It was an event to confirm a comprehensive defense reform plan which included a slash in manpower, shortening of compulsory service periods for enlisted personnel and increased funding for hardware introduction. One point of attention was the planned reduction of the number of generals and admirals, from the present 436 in all three armed serves to 360, mostly in the Army, by the target year of 2022.
President Moon held the commanders’ meeting in the presidential mansion for the first time since his inauguration in May 2017 apparently to demonstrate civil-military concord at this time when reconciliation with North Korea is sought for. But the introduction of the defense reform plan was ill-timed as it by and large indicated the slimming down of the South Korean military in contrast to the North’s proud posture of war readiness with various weapons of mass destruction, on which they offered denuclearization negotiation.
Critics are calling the reform plan, which had first been drafted during the last liberal rule of Roh Moo-hyun, a “self-disarmament scheme” for its reduction of manpower and shortening of the mandatory service period to a year and a half. They question if our government leaders are willing to stake the whole security business on the success of the denuclearization process without considering the consequences of a failure.
Youths who are about to be recruited for active military duty may welcome the 18-month service period but their seniors who had served up to three years in the past are genuinely worried. Skilled personnel will become rare in the entirety of the services and the negative impact will be seriously felt in the armor and artillery outfits, and in the specialized areas of missile defense, aircraft and warship maintenance and aerial surveillance, for example.
At the Blue House conference, the president asked for the military leaders’ self-reform to earn public trust and “qualitative strengthening” of forces to meet the rapidly changing security environment. Yet his primary concern should be about ensuring military officers’ compliance with the civilian leadership as it pursues a change in the relationship with the North envisioning denuclearization and peaceful coexistence.
As is common in most governments of civilian supremacy, the Moon Jae-in administration is seeking to raise an officer corps that is politically neutral and aloof to changes of power. What should precede this, however, is the establishment of democratic order and stability in the civilian political world. Otherwise, generals would only wish to complete their terms of command without making innovative efforts, while some may seek to build political connections for personal advantage.
The current investigation into the Defense Security Command’s alleged planning of a state of martial law during the turmoil of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment last year indicates Moon’s strong desire to depoliticize the military. However, no reform of the military intelligence agency can be successful as long as government leaders are tempted to use it for the protection of their power.
We need armed forces that are loyal but independent. A civilian government and the military can maintain a just and comfortable relationship when the two institutions recognize the limitations to their respective powers, which both are based on public trust, as is noted in political science classrooms.
The past 30 years of civilian rule in this country after almost as many years of military dictatorship has not been long enough for the civilian and military actors to establish a tradition of mutual trust, noninterference and effective collaboration in time of emergency. And the inevitable distance between the military community and the rest of society prevented respectable people in uniforms from having their names known to the civilian world.
But we trust there are many such qualified officers who at present must be occupying commanding positions in armed services.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He once served as director of the Korea Overseas Information Service. He can be reached at email@example.com – Ed.