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Military seeks to add 2,000 to marines

The South Korean military is seeking to add between 1,200 and 2,000 marine troops to its numbers as part of efforts to better defend five northwestern border islands, multiple government sources said Tuesday.

The plan to increase the number of marine troops ― which currently stands at around 27,000 ― could lead to the numbers of Army, Navy and Air Force troops also being readjusted, according to the sources.

Measures to better safeguard the islands ― which are of vital strategic value ― were drawn up after North Korea launched an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, near the tense western inter-Korean sea border.

“According to the plan to bolster the marines’ defense capabilities, it appears that some 1,200 marines should be added. However, military officials are also considering increasing the number by 1,500 or up to 2,000 troops,” said a source, requesting anonymity.

Most of the new troops to be added to the Marine Corps are expected to be dispatched to frontline islands including Yeonpyeong and Bangnyeong islands and to the special command expected to be created in April with an aim of better protecting the vulnerable islands and western border regions.

The special command to be headed by a major or lieutenant general is expected to consist of some 15,000-20,000 troops from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Officials largely predicted that the number of Army troops could be scaled back to help increase the number of Marine troops.

“The plan to increase marine troops comes as we expect a troop shortage in the future due to the low birth rate and the aging of the society. As it comes when we freeze the total troop number, the numbers in each military branch may have to be readjusted,” another source said.

As of November, the number of South Korean troops stands at around 650,000, which breaks down into about 520,000 in the Army, 68,000 in the Navy ― including about 27,000 Marines ― and 65,000 in the Air Force.

Some 5,000 of the Marine troops are stationed on the five border islands. The moves to better protect the western border islands represent a change in Seoul’s defense strategy for the area.

The military has adopted a more proactive, offensive strategy to safeguard the islands following the artillery attack. The marine troops stationed on the islands had previously taken a more passive defense strategy focusing largely on preparing against North Korea’s possible amphibious infiltrations.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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