January 13, 2011:
Since North Korea attacked twice last year, killing fifty sailors, marines and civilians, South Koreans have taken a closer look at their own military. What they saw was not pretty. South Korean military commanders have responded, and promised to fix things. There's a lot to fix. The generals admitted that there was a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that got in the way of training. Moreover, training will be reorganized to make it more relevant to actual combat. Combat commanders (officers and NCOs) will be reviewed and retrained to insure that they have the skills needed to lead troops in combat. Many troops assigned as assistants and drivers for officers, will be sent to fill vacancies in combat or support units. Air and naval patrols will be increased, and army troops will spend less time on non-military assignments.
All these changes are not just in response to the North Korean attacks, but to years of criticism by American officers (even before September 11, 2001), and a generational shift in the South Korea high command. For decades, the South Korea military had operated in traditional East Asian fashion. That is, it was strictly top down. Subordinates kept silent and simply followed orders from above. But two generations of officers have studied at American military schools, and worked with U.S. commanders in South Korea, and this created a growing demand for a more "American" command style (subordinates that can talk back, with different opinions and interpretations of battlefield situations). The Americans, who won in Iraq and are still at it in Afghanistan, have shown that you cannot be effective in combat unless you are deadly serious about it. For decades, the South Korean military was lulled into a peacetime complacency, where more reliance was placed on new weapons and equipment, and not the training and preparedness of the troops. There was a feeling that the next operations in North Korea would be peacekeeping and humanitarian. But now combat has to be considered a real possibility. Preparations must be made. The public, and the politicians, demand it.
South Koreans still believe that their military leadership is superior to what the North Koreans have, but are not sure how superior. It is known that there is growing corruption in the North Korean military, and reports of poor morale and suspect loyalty. South Korea does not have those morale and loyalty problems, but there are still uncertainties about how another North Koreans invasion would play out. South Koreans are, well, afraid, and fear is a great motivator.
This is especially true when so many of your troops are in uniform involuntarily. South Korea depends on conscription, and for the last two decades, more and more young men have been avoiding military service. Sometimes this involves fraud, even bribes. Many government officials and politicians have not served, and thus have a less accurate idea of what the South Korean armed forces are capable of. Those that did serve, increasingly did so unwillingly and without much enthusiasm. Until recently, many military-age South Koreans believed that the division of their country was all America's fault, and that the North Koreans were victims. But that view has changed recently, especially in the last year. The South Korean military has not changed so dramatically, and is not as combat ready as most South Koreans want it to be. Turning all this around will take time, and effort. Neither may be available, in sufficient quantity, in time.