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Controversy revived over ‘main enemy’ concept

With North Korea being cited as the possible culprit for the March 26 sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, controversy has resurfaced over whether to revive the official description of the North as the South’s “main enemy” in its defense policy paper.

Some have argued that military discipline has grown lax as there has not been any particular subject set for the military to fight against. However, others have voiced concern that reviving the term would only cause inter-Korean ties to deteriorate.

The communist state was first referred to as “the main enemy” in the South Korea’s defense whitepaper in 1995 amid chilled bilateral relations. In the 2004 version, the term was replaced by “direct military threat” amid the mood that was growing more conciliatory.

“It is necessary (to revive the term) with North Korea’s possible involvement in the Cheonan case being mentioned. The North is a serious national threat given that the armed standoff along the demilitarized zone continues and the North poses a nuclear threat,” said Hong Kwan-hee, representative of the Institute for Security Strategy.

Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University said that the term would hinder the ongoing efforts to enhance inter-Korean ties.

“When there are a host of bilateral issues such as establishment of a peace system on the peninsula and arms reduction, the term would become an impediment in the way the South manages bilateral relations,” Kim said.

“Without using the term, the military discipline can be tightened by strengthening its troop orientation and education sessions.”

Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said that people should not respond “too emotionally” to the disaster, whose cause has yet to be verified.

“Because of the incident, will we not seek inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation then? The description used after the inauguration of the current administration is sufficient enough,” Yang said.

The 2008 whitepaper, which was issued after the Lee Myung-bak administration was inaugurated in February 2008, refers to the North as “direct and serious threat.”

The government plans to publish the 2010 whitepaper around October. The Defense Ministry has denied a recent news report that it is seeking to revive the term, which has been a source of an ideological dispute among the political circles.

After the sinking of the Cheonan, a ruling party lawmaker first raised the need to revive the sensitive term.

“I see the need to restore the electronic display board around the military demarcation line for psychological warfare against the North. Hasn’t the military discipline become slack because of the deletion of the main enemy concept in the defense whitepaper?” said Rep. Kim Ok-lee of the Grand National Party.

Kim, a member of the National Assembly’s defense committee, asked the question during a committee session on April 19, which was attended by Defense Minister Kim Tae-young.

In response, the defense minister said that the issue over the revival of the term is “one of the issues to review” after the investigation into the incident, which he terms a “grave national security issue,” is over.

The use of the term in the whitepaper reflects the relations between then governments and the communist state.

The reference to the North as the main enemy in the 1995 whitepaper -- issued under the former President Kim Young-sam -- came after a North Korean official made hostile remarks during a working-level inter-Korean talks held at the truce village of Panmunjeom in March 1994.

The talks on the exchange of special envoys broke up after the North’s representative Park Young-su said, “Seoul is not far from here. When a war breaks out, Seoul will turn into a sea of fire.”

The term continued to remain in the 2000 version, issued under the former President Kim Dae-jung. However, the government, following the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000, deleted some of the sensitive terms, including “the continuing infiltration by the armed North Korean spies,” apparently taking into account improving bilateral relations.

In the 2004 version, issued under former President Roh Moo-hyun who inherited the policy of engaging the North from his predecessor, the term was replaced by “direct military threat, which was further softened with the term, “existing North Korean military threat,” in the 2006 version.

The whitepaper aims to form public consensus on national security, present to the people at home and abroad the country’s military capabilities and readiness, and garner trust from the international community through transparent defense policies, the Defense Ministry said.

The first whitepaper was first published in 1967. Between 1969 and 1987, the government did not publish it due to security reasons amid deteriorating inter-Korean relations.

The government resumed the publication in 1988 to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the armed forces. Since then, it had published the papers annually until 2000.

In 2001, the government decided to publish it biennially as there were no major changes in the defense policies to follow up on each year. Since 2004, the government has published the whitepaper biennially. Between 2001 and 2003, the government did not publish it, but made booklets briefly introducing military policies.

By Song Sang-ho  (
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