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[Editorial] Lax discipline

Recent incidents show South Korean military’s alertness becoming alarmingly frayed

A recent series of civilian intrusions into military bases has deepened concerns over lax discipline in South Korea’s armed forces.

In the latest such incident, a drunken man in his 50s dug under the fence surrounding an air defense outpost in Siheung, south of Seoul, on Monday and went inside to pick wild greens.

The absurd incident occurred less than two weeks after the military failed to detect two civic activists intruding into a naval compound on the southern island of Jeju and wandering around for about two hours. They have protested the construction of military facilities on the scenic island.

Military guards also belatedly disclosed another security breach that happened Jan. 3, in which a mentally ill man in his 70s got into the Jinhae Naval Command in the southeastern city of Changwon without being checked.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo convened an emergency meeting of top military commanders Tuesday and reprimanded them over the trespassing cases.

As he noted, there can be no excuse for lax sentry work at military bases. It horrifies us to imagine what would have happened if the intruders had been enemy agents.

The breaches are all the more lamentable as the military pledged a watertight posture last year following the undetected arrival of a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans at a South Korean port on the east coast.

The case sparked public criticism for lax discipline in the military and prompted opposition parties to demand the defense minister’s resignation.

During the emergency meeting, Jeong stressed the need to take “extraordinary” measures to prevent the recurrence of civilian trespassing on military facilities.

In a letter he later sent all service personnel, he called for the thorough checking of surveillance installations, the modification of their initial response system and stricter discipline.

But service members have ignored similar instructions from Jeong.

As critics indicate, behind the alarmingly loose discipline of the South Korean armed forces seems to be President Moon Jae-in’s preoccupation with reconciliation with North Korea.

A military agreement signed by the two Koreas in September 2018, which bans hostile acts against each other, has weakened South Korea’s military posture while North Korea has continued to make provocations.

The Moon administration’s decision to shorten the period of mandatory service to 18 months from 21 months amid a decline in the number of draftees is stretching the military’s personnel deployment too thin.

In this regard, Jeong has been criticized for pandering to Moon’s ardent efforts to court Pyongyang rather than trying to establish military preparedness despite changes in inter-Korean relations.

During a parliamentary session last year, he refused to define the nuclear-armed North Korea as an archenemy of the South Korean military.

He did not take issue with the North’s test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October, saying such launches were not addressed by the inter-Korean military accord.

He has also shunned describing the North’s torpedo attack on a South Korean warship and shelling of an island south of the inter-Korean maritime border in 2010 as provocative acts. Instead, he has called them “unsavory conflicts.”

His stance appears to have helped an easygoing mood permeate military headquarters and barracks.

Now some critics say derisively that the South Korean military is trying to defend the country with dialogue, not force.

Jeong is in no position to exonerate himself after the recent incursions into military bases. He should have taken the blame, rather than demanding that other top commanders recognize the seriousness of the incidents and repent.

The recent intrusions into military bases have renewed calls for President Moon to dismiss Jeong.

Moon needs to do so to tighten military discipline.

But the president may not be ready to let go of his defense minister, who shares his conciliatory approach to the North.

If Jeong is sincere about preventing the recurrence of the embarrassing incidents, he should at least pledge to step down voluntarily if a similar lapse takes place again.
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