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Defense chief warns of difficulties relocating ministry at short notice

Military feels burdened with moving during US-South Korea joint military drills

Defense Minister Suh Wook speaks during a parliamentary session at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 22, 2022. (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Suh Wook speaks during a parliamentary session at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 22, 2022. (Yonhap)
The South Korean defense minister on Tuesday publicly warned of “various and overlapping difficulties” in relocating and dispersing the military departments and units on a tight schedule, noting the necessity to “minimize” security vacuum at a critical juncture.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition team on March 15 asked the Defense Ministry to come up with ways to vacate the building by the end of this month by using its existing facilities, the ministry said in a written report to the National Assembly’s defense committee.

The ministry said the presidential transition committee underscored the “necessity of the expeditious relocation to guarantee conditions” for Yoon to carry out his duties upon inauguration.

Yoon on Sunday officially announced the plan to relocate the presidential office at the Defense Ministry compound by his inauguration on May 10.

The Defense Ministry’s departments and military units will move into the adjacent building currently used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which will be gradually relocated to the Capital Defense Command in Namtaeryeong, Gwanak-gu in Seoul.

But the Defense Ministry said in Tuesday’s report that “conditions need to be guaranteed to maintain the (military) readiness posture in consideration of security conditions during the government transition period and the schedule of the combined military training.”

Seoul and Washington expect to conduct the joint military drills in mid-April, while North Korea is widely expected to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile or a satellite around the same time.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook also told lawmakers that he personally sees the “necessity to consult on the timing and schedule” of the relocation plan with the transition team, while attending the emergency meeting of the National Assembly’s defense committee.

Relocation at a sensitive time
The defense minister said he has expressed concerns over infeasibility and “military difficulties” caused by the plan in his meeting with the presidential transition committee.

In particular, Suh pointed to the “peril” of moving the Defense Ministry’s departments and military units in April, when the South Korea-US joint military drills are scheduled to be conducted. The defense chief went on to say that the military “feels the burden” of the current timeframe.

“There will be various and overlapping difficulties as the places (we work) and we conduct military exercises are different,” the minister told lawmakers.

Suh admitted that “there appears to be a lot of concern over the relocation as it has been decided in such a short time and without review.”

Suh said the National Security Council members raised concerns over pending issues at a meeting held the previous day. The issues include moving equipment of the presidential office’s crisis management center into the Defense Ministry compound and maintaining watertight military readiness in the process of redeployment

But the defense minister repeatedly pledged that the military will strive to “minimize” a security vacuum that might be caused by the relocation, emphasizing that Seoul has “military options” to respond to North Korea’s unexpected “provocations.”

During the meeting, the defense chief said the relocation of the presidential office also requires the redeployment of air defense artillery corps.

Suh additionally admitted that he has “concerns about” the presidential office, the Defense Ministry, and the JCS being located at the same place.

“In my view, it is a principle that (the three) should be dispersed based on military considerations,” Suh told lawmakers. “Therefore, careful examination is needed.”

In a written report, the military also pointed out there are limitations in finding available space that can accommodate 16 military units and around 6,500 personnel currently working at the Defense Ministry compound.

The Defense Ministry underlined that the transition team should take account of the time required to sign a contract with a packing service company and complete the redeployment into existing facilities without refurbishment.

The ministry said it takes “at least four weeks” to disperse and relocate military departments and units into the JCS headquarters and other nearby facilities, including the vacant building previously used by the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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