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[Editorial] Duty posture

Latest North Korean defector case again reveals lax discipline in South Korea’s military

The results of a probe into the military’s latest failure to promptly spot a North Korean defector have once again revealed lax discipline in South Korea’s armed forces.

The defector, a civilian in his 20s, was caught on military surveillance cameras on the South’s eastern coast 10 times after he swam ashore last week. But soldiers on guard duty failed to notice the first eight of these scenes even though alarm bells rang on two occasions, according to the inquiry conducted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He was ultimately captured more than six hours after coming ashore some 3.2 kilometers south of the Military Demarcation Line. He moved along a road undetected for more than 5 kilometers before soldiers guarding the civilian control line noticed him on security cameras, twice, and reported the situation to their superiors.

Announcing the results of its probe Tuesday, the JCS vowed to tighten discipline among service members and supplement the surveillance system along the border.

The South Korean public is all too familiar with security breaches followed by pledges by the country’s military to strengthen guard duty, only to see such carelessness repeated.

Three months ago a North Korean civilian was captured hours after he crossed the inter-Korean border by jumping over barbed wire fences in Goseong, Gangwon Province, in what was seen as a defection attempt. In 2019, a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans arrived at an eastern South Korean port undetected.

In July, a North Korean defector returned to the North by passing through a waterway on the west coast. At the time, all Coast Guard units were ordered to check barriers inside drainage tunnels by August. But the drainage conduit the North Korean defector passed through last week had not been checked, and the military was not even aware of its existence.

The armed forces’ pledge to keep a watertight posture has been blemished further by a string of intrusions into military bases by South Korean citizens.

In March last year, a drunken man in his 50s dug under the fence surrounding an air defense outpost in Siheung, south of Seoul, and went inside to pick wild greens. The absurd incident took place less than two weeks after the military failed to detect two civic activists intruding on a naval compound on Jeju Island and wandering around for about two hours to protest the construction of military facilities on the scenic southern island. Two months earlier, a mentally ill man in his 70s got into the Jinhae Naval Command in the southeastern city of Changwon without a security check.

Behind the alarmingly loose discipline of the South Korean armed forces seems to be President Moon Jae-in’s preoccupation with reconciliation with North Korea.

A military agreement signed by the two Koreas in September 2018 on the occasion of Moon’s visit to Pyongyang, in which the two sides resolved not to take any hostile acts against each other, has weakened South Korea’s military preparedness while North Korea has continued to upgrade its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

In a news conference last month, Moon said Seoul and Pyongyang could discuss the South Korea-US joint military drill slated for this spring, sparking criticism that he was undermining the vital alliance in his blind pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation.

Furthermore, his administration’s decision to shorten the period of mandatory service to 18 months from 21 months amid a decline in the number of draftees has stretched the military’s personnel deployment capabilities too thin.

In any case, there can be no excuse for being lax on security in border areas and at military bases.

South Korean military leaders are aiming to retake the wartime operational control of their troops from the US before Moon’s five-year tenure ends in May next year. It is no understatement that the operational capabilities needed to complete the transition cannot be achieved without tightening discipline in the South Korean armed forces.

The country is planning to make its weapons systems more sophisticated and deploy a light aircraft carrier by 2033 to boost its defense capabilities. What should precede such plans, which will cost trillions of won, is to strengthen the duty posture of all service members.