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New defense chief vows reform amid North Korea crisis

Defense Minister Song Young-moo took office Friday, vowing to rebuild the military and boost the country’s capabilities to better counter North Korea’s evolving threats through sweeping reform across barracks and industry.

The 68-year-old was formally appointed by President Moon Jae-in a day earlier, following a month-long tug of war with opposition parties which had fiercely demurred at the nomination chiefly over his high-paying post-retirement stints at a law firm and defense contractor.

Moon, however, is pinning high hopes on the former chief of naval operations as the very man to spearhead his ambitious reform agenda aimed at stamping out irregularities in acquisition deals and ramping up Seoul’s own defense power which would facilitate its takeover of wartime operational control from the US.

“We ought to construct a brand new military well beyond defense reform so that we could regain the people’s trust. We can no longer delay defense reform for any reason,” Song said in his inauguration speech. 

Defense Minister Song Young-moo (far right) salutes the flat at his inauguration ceremony at the ministry headquarters on Friday. (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Song Young-moo (far right) salutes the flat at his inauguration ceremony at the ministry headquarters on Friday. (Yonhap)

He stressed the evolving threats by the Kim Jong-un regime in the wake of its recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which has given rise to an “unlimited competition” between the neighbor countries over an edge in economic and military power.

“The security situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula is more critical than ever. Despite the circumstances, we must create a strong military that could protect its own fate by itself, and pass it to the next generations,” he said.

“What we need is defense power with which to surmount any North Korean threats and play a mutually beneficial bridging role between the neighbors.” 

While on active duty, Song was involved in defense reform and OPCON transfer as head of strategic planning at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Moon was a top aide to then President Roh Moo-hyun.

With the alliance with the US being the backbone of the peninsula defense, the minister emphasized the significance of establishing a “comprehensive security regime” to encompass not only cross-border contingencies but natural disasters and other nonmilitary threats.

Internally, he pledged to foster a more favorable, violence-free barrack culture and increase the workforce of female soldiers and officers and improve their working conditions, among others.

The military has been hit by a series of bullying and shooting incidents involving casualties. Last month, a Navy captain was arrested on charges of repeatedly raping a 20-something female officer in his team which led her to commit suicide.

The ministry came under fire also last month after being found to have deliberately concealed in its report to Cheong Wa Dae that four launchers of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system have been brought to its site, not the two as widely known. Following a probe, the presidential office shunted off the deputy defense minister and suspended the deployment process.

New Defense Minister Song Young-moo (right) and outgoing Minister Han Min-koo walk to their inauguration and farewell ceremony at the ministry headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
New Defense Minister Song Young-moo (right) and outgoing Minister Han Min-koo walk to their inauguration and farewell ceremony at the ministry headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)

As the first minister from the Navy in about 13 years, he would also have to strike a balance in empowering all military organs, given the festering infighting between the Army, Navy and Air Force. They were seen once again engaging in a fierce power struggle in the lead up to and even after Song’s nomination.

An upcoming shake-up is likely to put the nascent leadership to an early test, amid rising speculation over whether a non-Army commander will become the JCS chairman for the first time. Many other top commander posts are up for grabs, including the chief of staff of the Army and Air Force and deputy commander of the Combined Force Command.

“The leadership reshuffle is the most urgent matter at this point as the successors would have to make a command decision and take part in trainings,” Song told reporters after the inauguration ceremony.

“But it could not take place so quickly because the JCS chairman and chiefs of each organ are subject to a cabinet approval and the president’s appointment.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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