Leadership: South Korea Sheds Some Generals


June 1, 2011: The South Korean government has ordered the military to improve the quality of its generals and admirals, and officers in general. The government also wanted to eliminate 60 of the 440 general and admiral level jobs, but was convinced to only cut 30 for now (and more later in the decade). The military has agreed not to automatically award commissions to those who complete the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) course many college students take, in addition to their other studies. In the past, getting an officer's commission was automatic, but now ROTC grads will be evaluated (by looking for those who have the same characteristics of earlier ROTC grads who performed poorly as officers) before getting the commission.  South Korea has long been criticized (quietly) about the low quality of many of its officers, and the general lack of combat ability. South Koreans long refused to even participate in wargames, lest their commanders be embarrassed ("lose face") if they lost one of these training exercises. The Americans had found that those kinds of losses make an officer a better wartime commander. But the South Koreans thought it was more important to avoid hurting the feelings of their senior commanders.

What set all these changes in motion was a report from the South Korean watchdog agency (Board of Audit and Inspection, or BAI) that was released a year ago. The report recommended that 25 senior defense officials be disciplined for lapses in judgment and performance leading up to and following the sinking (by a North Korean submarine) of the corvette Cheonan in March, 2010. The charges include not increasing readiness after a naval skirmish with North Korean gunboats last November (which included the sinking of a North Korean gunboat), and ignoring the problems with anti-submarine capabilities in coastal waters. This has been a long term problem, even though most North Korean submarines are miniature coastal types.

In the 1990s, one of these boats ran ashore in South Korea, while landing spies. One of the crewmen was captured and debriefed (and is now living as a refugee in South Korea), providing South Korea with considerable knowledge about North Korean coastal submarine operations. This did not lead to any meaningful effort to improve South Korea's ability to deal with these small subs. Instead, the South Korean Navy switched its efforts to developing a high seas fleet, ignoring the more immediate coastal threat from North Korean subs and commandos.

The BAI also criticized how ineptly the military responded to the sinking of the Cheonan, and implied that there were systemic problems in the South Korean military command that crippled combat effectiveness. American military commanders have long made some of the same complaints, but quietly so as not to cause a diplomatic uproar. The BAI report was not, as has happened in the past, quickly swept under the rug, but supported political leaders wanting to make some major changes in the leadership, and practices, of the South Korean armed forces.

Since the two North Korean attacks 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 of 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.

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.


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