Plunge Pontificates

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Friday, April 29, 2005

South Korea and the Military Coup

May 16, 1961, in a relatively quiet coup, Pak Chung-hee seized control of the government and became the President of South Korea. Korea at that time was in difficult straights. The economy was in the dumps, there wasn’t enough food and the government seemed to be more concerned with stopping their rivals than with governing the nation. While the students were politically inclined, the rest of the nation was just trying to survive. Therefore, when Pak took power, there was little fan fare.

Things were different when Chun took power. After the assassination of Park, there was a period in Korea where it looked like democracy might flourish. Unfortunately, this was short lived. In fighting, greed, revenge, all of these things blocked the rise of democracy. Seeing there were problems, Chun, with the help of his graduating class of soldiers, took control of the government. First, a purge inside the military to root out opposition, then a purge of the government itself with Chun taking power and declaring himself president. He proved his ability to be ruthless and gained the eternal ire of the students and populace by his actions in Kwangju.

His coup took 2 years, from 79-81. Chun’s regime lasted 7 years, 1981-1988. His legacy went even longer with his protégé Noh Tae-woo becoming president after Chun’s resignation.

Since the end of Noh’s presidency, politics in Korea have taken a sharp turn to the left. From Kim Young-sam to Kim Dae-jung to the current Roh Mu-hyun, each president has been successively more liberal to the point of socialistic. Along with this, their foreign policies have changed drastically as well. North Korea is no longer considered the epitome of evil.

This shift in policy first came to light under Kim Dae-jung and the ‘Sunshine Policy.’ Korea went from a hostile stance with North Korea to one of appeasement and understanding. No longer would South Korea shout bellicose phrases to and about the North. From that point on, engagement was the flavor of the day. South Korea would silently accept the verbal punishment from the North and try to bring a rapprochement via incentives and aid.

This continued while the military silently continued its vigilant stance, protecting the South from the North both on land and on sea.

In June of 1999, North Korean naval vessels crossed the North Limit Line (NLL), the equivalent of the DMZ that exists on land. In the first naval battle since cessation of hostilities nearly 50 years early, South Korea proved its dominance, sinking one ship and damaging several more. 30 North Korea sailors were killed in the action.

Following that, in 2002, another naval battle took place. This time, South Korea wasn’t as lucky. 4 South Korean soldiers gave their lives in defense of there country.

Next, in late 2003, South Korea naval ships tried but failed to capture or sink 2 North Korean submarines that crossed in the south’s zone of control. Then, in 2004 South Korean ships fired several warning shots at North Korean ships that illegally crossed the border.

These battles at sea have not been the only ones. Another major battle and manhunt took place on Korean soil during 1996. A group of North Korean commandoes / spies tried to retreat back to North Korea, overland, after their spy submarine became entangled in a fishing net. Although a massive manhunt was undertaken, one North Korean commando was never captured. Killing civilians and military personnel alike, the North Koreans bloodily made their way back home.

These are just the incidents that we have been informed of, who knows how many more there have been.

These soldiers who fought in these battles and gave their lives should have been interred to their everlasting rest as heroes. Instead, with the change in emphasis, the government would rather they be forgotten. It is hard to engage in happy, free exchanges with your ‘brothers’ to the North if you are reminded that they are killing those living around you everyday.

A good example of this is the treatment and lack of respect given to the sailors that died in the 2002 engagement. From an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo:

The bereaved have spent the last three years in an atmosphere where it was difficult to even grieve. Nervous government officials, worrying that the incident might cast a pall over the Sunshine Policy, even warned the families to please be quiet.

During the first two remembrance ceremonies in 2003 and 2004, not one high-ranking government official, let alone the defense minister, showed up. The person who did send condolence letters to the bereaved was not a Korean government official but the commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea. A request by the families to move the bullet-riddled South Korean patrol boat to the Yongsan War Memorial, to show people that here were men who gave their lives for the country, were ignored. “Our children who lost their lives to the enemy are being treated like criminals who tried to ruin the atmosphere of intra-Korean reconciliation,” one family member said.

From the time of the 2002 battle to the end of that year, there were nationwide candlelight vigils to mourn the death of two schoolgirls killed when they were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle. Any civic group worth its salt was there. In June 2004, right around the time of the second anniversary, a crowd of 5,000, including party and government figures, gathered at the funeral of Kim Sun-il, who was killed in Iraq. Their deaths, too, were heartbreaking, but they were not killed defending their country like those who were killed in the West Sea fight.

The Republic of Korea is a nation that does not remember soldiers who answered the country’s call and died fighting for it. It is a nation that silences the bereaved for fear of upsetting the enemy who shot their sons for no reason. Is it a nation that has the right to ask the soldiers who even now guard the DMZ to give their lives for it?

From the time Kim Young-sam came to power, the treatment of the military, especially career military has decayed. While their role has become increasingly difficult their treatment reminds me of the US military in the 1970s.

Not only does the South Korean government continue to mistreat its military, it seeks even more control and say over internal military affairs. Recently, it has been announced that South Korea will begin to restructure its military along the lines of the French Military. Some of this includes:

A reduction of force by nearly 40,000 men
Reform the promotion system
Create a ‘balanced scorecard’ (not sure what that means)
Part of this would mean, “
The defense minister said an improved promotion system would mean guaranteeing the minister's right to suggest personnel and allowing civilian administrative staff to sit on the Defense Ministry’s personnel screening committee, which is currently made up only of serving soldiers.

It was also mentioned that the government would start to investigate some darker episodes of the military past.

The Korean military is a very conservative organization among the career soldiers. They continue to believe that the North is a real and present danger. They wargame with the thought that China could become involved and they continue to enjoy and support the US. While there is the occasional conflict, for the most part, they consider the US military to be their strongest ally.

The rift between the Korean government and the military continues to grow. What was a small drift at first, some discordant ideas and thoughts, has become a nearly insurmountable crevice. The military and those running the government have little in common at the present time.

Although it has been nearly 25 years since the last military coup in Korea, the groundwork is being laid for a third and potentially the most devastating of them all. The military is beginning to grow restless. In a recent advertisement taken out by The Retired Colonel, it asked for the military to take a stand against the current government. The ad further said:

accused the government of drifting dangerously toward leftism, providing fertile ground for pro-North Korean communist activism in South Korea.

"Without firing a shot, a red coup d'etat is being staged," the ads said, citing a series of cases that they argued seriously undermined
South Korea's founding principles: democracy and the market economy.

"The national armed forces -- the last bastion of national security -- should reject any order from a government that runs afoul of the Constitution,"

The ads also cited several cases disturbing to the military.

A presidential committee investigating the suspicious deaths of pro-democracy activists under past military governments is trying to paint today's Korean military as an immoral group as a whole.

The committee has been in dispute with the military over the death of an enlisted serviceman who the military said committed suicide in the 1970s. It alleges that the soldier, a pro-democracy activist before joining the army, was shot to death by one of his superiors.

-- The presidential committee's hiring of three ex-North Korean spies as investigators. One was found to have interrogated a retired Army general-grade officer in connection with the soldier's death. The committee claimed it did nothing wrong, since the ex-spies were pardoned under a government amnesty and had their civil rights restored.

-- The government's push to relocate its administrative capital out of
Seoul against prevailing public opinion. The relocation to the central region of the country is one of President Roh's key campaign pledges.

-- The government's recent agreement with North Korea to dismantle all propaganda loudspeaker broadcasting facilities along the border, which the ad says is doing more harm than good to South Korea.

Beyond this, a professor at Ehwa Women’s University said, “You may understand that there is no other way but a military coup to overthrow a leftist government that has been installed through a legitimate process and restore a free, democratic system.”

Yet, analysts seem to feel the possibility of a coup in Korea to be nearly impossible. They cite the fact that the military organizations that allowed earlier coups to be planned no longer exist and that military is under far better control of the civilian government than before.

This is all true, but the Korean military is still very strong and very capable. It has continued to train and pursue excellence. With the disdain the government and the people currently seem to have for it, something will have to give. Either the military will become a shell of its former self, with those having the ability to lead finding rolls to fill other than that of the military, or through miracle, attitudes will change and the military will garner the respect that it deserves, or it will reassert itself in a way that will have unpredictable consequences.

Having recently spoken with friends and acquaintances in the military and surrounding the military, the heart of the military has taken a blow these past several years. They feel neglected and unwanted. Their sacrifice is truly felt to be in vain. While they protect the borders, their leaders try to find new ways to appease those they consider enemies. Their anger and resentment simmers low. I just wonder how hard of a push it would take to bring it to a boil.

With the next election coming relatively soon, all eyes will be on those running for the highest office in the land. Will the next president be one that unites and leads or will he be even more radical than his predecessors? Will they continue to mock their military and ignore those who should be heroes? Or will they pay them the respect that they deserve? Just how long will the military continue to hide in the shadows, licking the wounds received from a thoughtless master?

My heart goes out to those that have lost their life in the service of South Korea and the families left behind to pick up the pieces. My heart, goes out to them. With that, disdain is all I feel for those that refuse to even acknowledge their sacrifice let alone honor it.