[News Focus] Military under fire, marred by lack of discipline, cover-ups

By Jo He-rim

Defense Minister Jeong’s position appears tenuous as opposition parties submit motion calling for dismissal

  • Published : Jul 17, 2019 - 19:47
  • Updated : Jul 17, 2019 - 20:29

South Korea’s military has come under fire after a series of incidents involving false testimonies and security failures, showing laxity in discipline.

Opposition parties have submitted a motion calling for the dismissal of Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, holding him responsible for the incidents. 

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologizes for the second time for the incident in which a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans reached a South Korean seaport undetected, July 3. (Yonhap)

In recent weeks, Jeong has tendered public apologies twice over the military’s failure to detect a North Korean boat that reached a South Korean sea port on the east coast.

Only a day after his second apology on July 3, an unidentified person was spotted at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, who then managed to evade capture. A petty officer second class, who was due to be discharged from the mandatory military service in August, falsely turned himself in as his commander sought quick closure to the case.

Amid mounting concerns over the military’s lax handling of incidents, the opposition Liberty Korea Party and Bareunmirae Party submitted a motion Monday calling for Jeong’s dismissal.

Lax discipline, mishandling

On the night of July 4, an unidentified suspicious person was found inside the Navy’s Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek. When the on-guard soldier at the ammunition depot called for a countersign, the person fled.

An immediate manhunt followed, but the Navy was unable to catch or identify him. The initial investigation concluded that it was not an infiltration, taking security footage and witness accounts into account.

Following an internal investigation, a petty officer second class confessed that he was the unidentified person. He said he was smoking, but became startled and ran away when he was called by another soldier.

His testimony, however, turned out to be false. The confession had been masterminded by a Navy commander in charge of the fleet’s command and control center, who gathered 10 cadets in the morning following the incident and persuaded one of them to give false testimony. Military police charged the commander with abuse of power. 

The entrance to the Navy’s Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

The actual suspicious party was a petty officer third class, who was caught on July 13, a day after the Defense Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Command formed a team of 25 investigators to conduct a fresh probe. 

The officer was on night guard when he sneaked out to get a drink from a vending machine in the barracks some 200 meters from his assigned guard post. According to a Defense Ministry official, the officer told investigators he was scared to turn himself in as soldiers are not allowed to leave their designated posts without permission.

Following the incident, Jeong ordered the military to come up with measures to establish strict discipline.

While the incident could have just been a mishap, the false confession fueled criticism of a military already accused of attempting to downplay the events.

Concerns arose when a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans crossed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, to reach Samcheok Port in Gangwon Province on June 15. The military and Coast Guard had failed to detect the boat that had sailed for days in South Korean waters until a civilian reported the arrival after speaking with the North Koreans on land.

The military’s initial handling of the incident also came under fire, when it first said its surveillance operations had been conducted “normally.” 

The wooden boat from North Korea crossed the de facto maritime border and reached South Korea’s Samcheok Port on June 15. (Yonhap)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also appeared to leave out details when explaining the incident to reporters, saying the boat was found “near” Samcheok Port, and that it had drifted down the sea. It was later revealed that the North Koreans tied the boat along the break water of the port and two of them came on land, triggering speculations the military attempted to downplay the incident.

In announcing the result of a joint investigation, the government and the Defense Ministry admitted to security lapses, but denied that they sought to cover up the incident. However, the credibility of the joint investigation itself was questioned and criticized as a self-audit.

Are military cover-ups habitual?

“There are many cases of such small cover-ups in the military. And the Navy’s recent case is merely one that was made public,” a Defense Ministry official told The Korea Herald, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As to the suggestion that the naval commander ordered the false confession to prevent the incident from hampering his promotion, the official said it is not likely and would result in a severe penalty.

“The commander appears to have been promoted recently. He was in charge at the control center there, so it is more likely that he just did not want to be bothered by the case and wanted to end the case quickly,” he said.

Several ministry officials also pointed to the close-knit and cliquish nature of the military for its “naivete” in dealing with the incidents.

Some ministry officials suggested the liberal government’s North Korean policy is affecting the military, as it appears to downplay conflicts with the communist country.

“Think about the purpose of the military. It is obvious that we have an enemy, but it is a fact that the government does not want us to say anything if we try to raise an issue,” the official said.

The Defense Ministry’s 2018 White Paper, published in January, refrained from directly referring to North Korea as an enemy.

At the National Assembly, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is defending Jeong, saying that while those responsible for the irregularities should be punished strictly, there is no reason to dismiss the minister.

More than half of the current lawmakers should vote for a dismissal motion for it to pass, which would mean 149 votes out of 296. The two opposition parties together hold 138 seats.

The parliamentary motion is not legally binding, but if passed, it would be a political blow to the government.