An Army Adrift; Politics and Scandal Roil the Country's Military

By Lee, B. J.; Caryl, Christian et al. | Newsweek International, January 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

An Army Adrift; Politics and Scandal Roil the Country's Military


Lee, B. J., Caryl, Christian, Miyazaki, Jaimie, Newsweek International


Byline: B. J. Lee and Christian Caryl (With Jaimie Miyazaki in Tokyo)

Two decades ago, South Korea's military had a clear enemy. Stalinist North Korea had triggered a fratricidal war that led to the death of millions. The South's cold-war-era leaders, all staunch anti-communists and former generals, painted the Hermit Kingdom as paranoid and bloodthirsty. Yet today, several South Korean officials say a government white paper on national defense due later this month may do away with the traditional description of North Korea as Seoul's "main enemy." Political leaders are calling for closer friendship with Pyongyang and more independence from Washington. The only security many younger Koreans are worried about is financial. Once a pillar of society, to which every young Korean male owes two years of service, the military is adrift. "Sometimes," says one regimental commander, "I wonder in what direction our guns should be aimed."

He is not the only officer in South Korea's 690,000-man military bewildered by political and social changes on the Korean Peninsula. Since former president Kim Dae Jung started the so-called Sunshine Policy of rapprochement with the North in 1998, the two Koreas have been striving mightily, if fitfully, to act like friends. Political, economic, social and cultural exchanges between the two have increased dramatically as Kim's successor, President Roh Moo Hyun, has continued the engagement policy. At the same time, the North's 1.1 million-man Army continues to point 1,000 artillery tubes at Seoul (and to develop nuclear weapons)--even as the United States moves forward with plans to reduce its 37,000 troops in South Korea. "Korea's military is seriously challenged by both internal and external factors," says Lee Jung Hoon, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University. "It is sad to see our last bastion shaken by political and social turmoil."

At the heart of the military's identity crisis are the increasingly liberal young conscripts who form the backbone of the South's forces. Known as the World Cup generation (after the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup match that gave rise to a new sense of nationalist euphoria), they tend to take the country's affluence for granted and don't share the visceral anti-communism of their elders, whose memories of war with the North are clear and traumatic. Kim Jin Woo, a 22-year-old college student who finished his military service in November, confesses: "I don't think North Korea is as threatening as others claim. They're our own people, after all."

The World Cuppers also tend to be highly critical of what they see as the arrogance of the Bush administration and U.S. forces stationed in the South. When two middle-school girls were killed in a traffic accident by a U.S. military vehicle in 2002, it was World Cup twentysomethings who filled the streets, chanting anti-American slogans. Their support drove the surprising come-from-behind election of President Roh, who promised not to kowtow to Washington. In one public-opinion survey last year, 57 percent of South Koreans in their 20s picked the United States as Korea's biggest enemy, while only 20 percent chose North Korea. As one of the strongest proponents of ties with Washington, the military is cursed by association. …

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An Army Adrift; Politics and Scandal Roil the Country's Military
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