Leadership: Clouded Thinking In South Korea

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December 24, 2010: In the midst of all the commotion over North Korea firing rockets at a South Korean island last month, the head of the South Korea Army was forced to resign on December 14th because of his involvement in a real estate scandal. This is another indication of problems in the South Korean military, problems which have been building for several decades, and largely hidden from public view.

For example, six months ago, South Korea asked the U.S. to delay the transfer of wartime command in South Korea, from the United States to South Korea, for another three years. Back in 2007, it was agreed that by 2012, the South Koreans would take over that responsibility. But North Korea's second nuclear test last year, and North Korea sinking a South Korea warship last March, shook things up.

The U.S. has had wartime control of all armed forces in South Korea since 1950, when the north invaded and destroyed the South Korea armed forces. The South Korean forces were rebuilt, with U.S. assistance, within a year. But until the last decade, the U.S. had most of the high tech weapons and systems. It made sense that the Americans would retain supreme command, even though South Korea would be providing most of the troops. But five years ago, everyone agreed that South Korea now had the troops and the tech, and maybe it was time for a change. At that point it was believed that North Korea would soon collapse, and military operations would mainly be of the peacekeeping variety. No more. Since the Americans have nukes, and much better intel resources, the South Korean leadership feels better letting the U.S. retain the leadership role for a few more years.

But South Korea is ready to take over, at least in theory. Two years ago, the South Korean military fired up its new electronic information system, KJCCS (Korea Joint Command Control System). It took three years of effort, and about $30 million, to develop. What it basically does is pull in electronic information from all military sources, and presents it in a format easily understood by commanders. This includes stuff from radars, electronic monitoring gear, UAVs, military units all over the country, and satellites.

The purpose of KJCCS is to enable the senior commanders to make decisions more quickly. Knowing that the North Koreans have nothing like this, and take much longer to sort out what it going on and make a decision, the South Koreans expect KJCCS to provide quite an edge in wartime. There's also the need to be able to match American command and control systems. The U.S. has a system similar to KJCCS, which South Korea officers have used during joint exercises. Gradually, KJCCS will become the main command and control system, which U.S. forces will have to plug into.

The KJCCS also supports 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). KJCCS makes this possible, as this flood of information enables subordinates to provide feedback that does not break any of the ancient taboos about embarrassing the boss, but does clearly spotlight rapidly developing bad news. Hey, it's just a bunch of stuff on a big flat screen display. The boss will know what to do. But many South Korean commanders are unsure if their top people will be able to make the big decisions, correctly and quickly. The Americans, who won in Iraq and are still at it in Afghanistan, have shown that they can make the decisions in desperate situations. Many South Koreans believe their senior military leaders could have reacted more effectively to recent North Korean military aggression. South Koreans still believe that their military leadership is superior to what the North Koreans have, but are not sure how superior. There is also 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.

On a more practical level, South Korea has had a hard time building the kind of intelligence systems (especially the space satellites and UAVs) that the Americans have. Even though the U.S. would provide needed intel in wartime, South Korea wants to keep the U.S. in charge, and committed, until things in North Korea settle down, or simply collapse.

But since North Korea attacked last month, South Koreans are taking a closer look at their own military, and sometimes don't like what they see. 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.

 


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