Within the next few years, the U.S. is hoping to transfer command over the Republic of Korea military back to the president of South Korea. However, Koreans are still recovering from the shock of the death of Private Yoon, a medic in the 28th Regiment in the Republic of Korea Army, after continuous beatings from other soldiers who shared a barracks with him. In light of recent events, many Korean citizens and military insiders have posed the question of whether the Korean military is ready to say that it is ready to defend its country in the case of a full-scale war with North Korea or any other foreign enemy. I would argue however, the deaths of soldiers caused by fellow servicemen shows that a powerful and effective military requires something far beyond vast numbers or state-of-the-art weaponry.
Currently the Korean armed forces are under the command of an organization called ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC). It is a military organization that controls both the ROK forces and the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) and it is managed by the US Secretary of Defense, the ROK Minister of Defense, and the presidents of both nations. However, in the case of a full-scale invasion by North Korea, then control of the Korean forces will go directly to General Curtis M. Scaparotti, the commander of the U.S. forces in Korea without going through the complicated decision-making processes.
Essentially, the president of Korea does not have full control over the ROK military ever since the early days of the Korean War when command was given over to General Douglas MacArthur. Many Korean military insiders however have expressed great criticism over this policy, suggesting that it limited the Korean military’s combat capabilities during North Korea’s military provocations.
For instance, during the winter of 2010, the KPA (Korean Peoples’ Army) fired hundreds of artillery shells at the island of Yeon-Pyeongdo where a small fishing village was situated. The ROK Air Forces dispatched a squad of F-15K fighters to the area to bomb the KPA artillery base which was literally across the bay from Yeon-Pyeongdo. The CFC however, commanded that the ROK retaliate only with their own artillery to prevent the skirmish from expanding into a full-scale conflict. The bombardment resulted in the devastation of an entire village and the deaths of several civilians and two Korean marines.
Korean military insiders expressed outrage that they could not devastate the enemy despite the fact fighters were waiting in the air for the order to fir and began to call for transfer of command over the ROK forces back to the Korean president. However, what the ROK Forces do not realize is that if they had attacked the KPA artillery base that day, would they have been able to guarantee that the fighting would have stopped there? If it did not, would they have been able to emerge victorious?
Just by comparing the quantity and quality of the weapons that South and North Korea possess, it is difficult to simply state who hold the advantage. For instance, North Korea’s latest tanks are Soviet T-44s from the World War II era, and their aircraft are mostly MIG 29s that are outdated and old. On the other hand, South Korea is armed with mostly state-of-the-art technology including Aegis Destroyers, F-15 fighters and recently acquired Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Although the KPA has roughly twice as many troops, the quality of South Korea’s weaponry overcomes this disadvantage.
What is equally important however, are the mindsets of the soldiers who will be fighting in a war. Earlier this year, a Sergeant Lim (the Ministry of Defense refused to reveal the names) was reported to have shot and killed 3 fellow soldiers after finishing guard duty at the DMZ. The cause of the shootings at the world’s most heavily guarded and dangerous border was reported to have been physical violence and continuous verbal abuse against the sergeant. The most recent incident was the beating and murder of Private Yoon.
Korea is one of the few remaining countries in the world that requires its citizens to serve a minimum number of years in the armed forces. However, the new generation of Korean men overall seem to be more unable to adjust to military life than their predecessors who had to serve a year longer and had poorer working conditions. Despite improvements to physical conditions of facilities and treatment of troopers by officers, violence within the armed forces continues and parents are more concerned about sending away their sons to serve the country even more than ever before.
A recent report released by “OhmyNews” showed that many lower ranking soldiers (PSCs and PFSs) bear great grudges towards their superiors (corporals and sergeants) even though they are all draftees in the same boat. One private even stated that the first thing he would do in the case of a second Korean War is to shoot his platoon leader. Statements like these represent the reality of the ROK forces. It is difficult to say whether these men will be able to work as an effective team in a national emergency. Would they be able to fight against KPA soldiers who are likely to desire to die for their country and dictator?
After the death of Private Yoon, South Korea’s president Geun-hye Park urged the military to carry out programs to educate draftees and active forces regarding human rights and some have already been put into effect. However, much more must be done to turn the ROK Forces into an effective cohesive military. Some experts are even suggesting that Korea, though highly unrealistic at this stage, now start a volunteer military system, citing the case of Japan as an example. Japan has a military of 200,000 personnel roughly a third of the size of the ROK forces, but is considered to be the 4th most powerful military in the world after the U.S. Russia, and China.
In 2018, the ROK forces’ war-time-operations-command is scheduled to be returned to the president of South Korea, allowing the ROK military to oversee its own operations during a foreign invasion and also retaliate in any way they see most appropriate if the KPA should provoke them. However, I would argue that Korea is not yet ready to take its own defense with its personnel so unstable and hostile towards each other. More must be done both by the government and the draftees themselves to make an effective military that could, if necessary give up their lives for the nation and their families. It is no longer about having more missiles and planes than the enemy but actually having committed soldiers.