Experts say more realistic troop education, firmer discipline should be given
The recent unchecked border crossing by a North Korean soldier has underscored the South Korean military’s complacency, slackened discipline and outmoded troop education, experts said.
Some also pointed out that the incident revealed the troops’ difficulty patrolling the mountainous frontline areas around the clock, calling for a fundamental change in guarding the border.
The porous security has caused public discontent as the military has vowed to adopt a proactive defense strategy and spent considerable sums on procuring high-tech arms following the two deadly attacks in 2010.
On Oct. 2, a North Korean soldier crossed the military demarcation line and climbed over the barbed wires without being spotted. South Korean border troops caught him only after he knocked on the glass door of their frontline barracks.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on Monday reprimanded 14 related military officers, including five generals, for the security failure.
“It is very preposterous and worrisome as it happened, though the military promised to raise a combat-ready force and adopt a stronger defense strategy following the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo,” said Kwon Tae-young, adviser to the non-profit Korea Research Institute for Strategy.
To foreign security experts, such an incident is “incredible.”
“South Korea is wealthy and has the best technology in the world. It is complacency,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security in an earlier interview. “It is not having the process in place. You’ve got the capability, but you are not using it because nobody is being mindful of this.”
Some noted that South Korea’s complacency comes from an overwhelming gap in terms of the possession of high-tech weapons systems backed by a robust alliance with the U.S.
As this type of security failure has happened on many occasions so far, observers argue that there should be a “fundamental change” in the border patrolling system to reflect the challenging reality facing border guards.
“The distance between one guard post and another is quite far and soldiers have difficulty looking over the wide, open areas every second, particularly at night. Thus, this could happen again,” said Kwon.
A 24-year-old college student, who was discharged from the military last year after serving as a border guard in Gangwon Province, said it is easier said than done to maintain water-tight border security.
“Commanders say that soldiers can maintain a tight security if we follow their instructions that come from their analysis based on their theoretical calculations at their desks far from reality,” he told The Korea Herald, declining to be named.
“That doesn’t fit the reality. If we put soldiers here and there tightly along the barbed wire, we could perhaps prevent such an incident. But that is not the reality and at night, we cannot see far ahead.”
He also pointed out that lax security awareness and discipline might have contributed to the security failure.
“According to the patrol manual, soldiers are to move from one point to another for a set period of time. But as it is quite difficult to climb up and down the tough mountainous areas, many do not play by the book. That is a chronic problem,” he said.
“Although there are some challenges in their patrol work, it is quite unacceptable that such a security failure has not been prevented.”
Seoul’s Defense Ministry has pledged to promptly establish a science-based border vigilance system and improve barbed wire and other border facilities to prevent any North Korean ground-based infiltrations.
But experts say that it also needs to pay more attention to troop education and discipline.
“Troop education is crucial, but it is outmoded and caught in the Cold War-era, political, ideological frame. Thus, it does not appeal to the young soldiers. On top of that, our soldiers look at North Koreans as part of our nationals as witnessed during the Olympics when they rooted for North Korean players,” said Yi Chae-young, security professor at Kyungnam University.
“We should mobilize various media such as user-generated-content and social networking services that will be more interesting and can be regarded as more realistic. They should move out from the old, anachronistic frame.”
Yi also noted that the nature of frontline units being closed off from society is another contributing factor for the continuing failures in border security.
“If all of their problems and loopholes are revealed to the outside, they might have acted more promptly to improve their operation. Some might have sought to cover up failures as they could get in the way of their promotion,” he said.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com