The presidential office reportedly summoned senior officials of the military to grasp how a recent South Korean military exercise was reported in a newspaper published by the Ministry of National Defense’s media agency.
The Air Force and Navy conducted a joint defense drill on May 6 with focus on protecting northwestern islands from surprise attacks.
The Korea Defense Daily ran an article on the exercise on May 7 under the title “Drill confirms abilities to strike origin of enemy’s provocation and carry out military operations.”
North Korea condemned South Korea strongly on May 8, calling the exercise an “extremely dangerous military fuss.” The North Korean Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces said in a statement that the South conducted a military exercise targeting the North as an enemy. The North argued that “the drill set back everything to the days before the Sept. 19, 2018 inter-Korean military agreement.”
Then on the same day, the National Security Office of Cheong Wa Dae raised issue with the newspaper report. The office called in officials of the ministry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army, Navy and Air Force to listen to their accounts of how the exercise was reported.
Cheong Wa Dae acknowledged on May 15 that there had been a meeting related to the report, but dismissed speculations that the summoned officials might have been reprimanded. However, it refused to disclose what was discussed.
In its account of the article in question, the ministry reportedly vowed to “strengthen consultation with Cheong Wa Dae and related ministries before publicizing sensitive security issues.” It gave this account probably because Cheong Wa Dae got angry at publicizing the military exercise through its propaganda media. One cannot but wonder whether the South should hush up its military exercises if Pyongyang condemns them.
The daily reported the same military drill last year, too, but Cheong Wa Dae said little probably because the North did not raise issue with it. But as the North latched on to the exercise this time, it summoned related officials immediately under the pretext of discussion.
The joint exercise in question was a routine, legitimate training exercise. And people have the right to know about what the military does to protect them. It is natural for a country to conduct military drills to prepare to fend off attacks.
The drill took place in coastal waters off Gunsan, North Jeolla Province. The venue is outside the West Sea Peace Waters, a zone where both Koreas agreed to ban all hostile acts, including military drills, under their military accord.
South Korea did not violate the agreement. However, after words of condemnation or threats from Pyongyang, Cheong Wa Dae summoned military officials and made them give accounts of how the training was reported.
This gives an impression that Cheong Wa Dae is under the thumb of the North. If the presidential office calls the publicity of routine exercises into question, the military will likely be demoralized. It is hard to counter the impression that Cheong Wa Dae is more concerned with the mood of the regime in Pyongyang than the morale of South Korean soldiers and the public’s right to know.
This is not the first time the government under President Moon Jae-in appeared to belittle itself in front of North Korea.
When North Korean soldiers fired anti-aircraft shots at a South Korean guard post along the Demilitarized Zone, military authorities in the South appeared to be defending the North, saying the shots appeared to be “accidental” even as the North said nothing about the provocation.
The military authorities’ response is not only disappointing, but also concerning. The military is already under fire for the laxity of discipline. South Korean soldiers at the guard post attempted to return fire with a K6 machine gun, but its firing pin did not work. The device was found to have been damaged apparently due to a lack of maintenance.
If Cheong Wa Dae maintains a submissive attitude toward Pyongyang, South Korea’s military discipline will give way and its security will be weakened. If it wants a true peace with North Korea, it must deal with the North in a sensible and dignified manner.