North Korean Boat Incident Puts Defense Posture into Question
(Source: The Korea Times; issued June 24, 2019)
The latest crossing of a North Korean boat into South Korean waters without being detected is raising concerns over defense amid President Moon Jae-in's push for cross-border reconciliation.

Analysts say the Moon administration has failed to ensure vigilance regardless of detente and that the situation has led to lax discipline within the South Korean military.

They also say the pace of reconciliatory steps has been faster than it was under the liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

"Security and detente cannot go together, and unfortunately I don't see it in this government," said Korea Defense Network President Shin In-kyun.

Shin referred to the Ministry of Defense's white paper that no longer describes North Korea as an enemy following President Moon's three summits with the North's leader Kim Jong-un in 2018.

"You don't see the word North Korea anywhere in military newspapers, even on stories about the 1950-53 Korean War," Shin said. "This may seem petty, but it's apparently affecting the mindsets of the young soldiers."

Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, said, "The Moon administration does not seem to draw a clear line between defense and unification policies."

For instance, Park said, the Moon government has not made it clear that border security should remain unchanged when the two Koreas removed guard posts within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) last year as part of reconciliatory efforts.

"This can be confusing, but it's the government's job to make it crystal clear that the military must be vigilant at all times," Park said.

The two analysts pointed out the defense position under the governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun was not seen "problematic" as much as it is under Moon.

On June 15, a North Korean fishing boat carrying four crew members was found adrift off South Korea's east coast.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said its overall coastal and maritime defense operations had proceeded "normally," but acknowledged that its radar operation system fell short of spotting the boat.

The 1.8-ton wooden boat with a 28-horsepower engine left the North's Hamgyong Province on June 9 and crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL).

After moving further south for the following two days, the crew turned the engine off and stayed overnight at sea. The boat then began moving to the port and reached the dock at Samcheok, Gangwon Province on June 15. The site was about 130 kilometers south of the NLL.

A civilian first saw the boat and reported it to police. Asked where they were from, the crew replied that they were from the North.

One asked if he could borrow a cell phone to contact a relative in Seoul.

It was only then that the JCS, the Ministry of Defense and the Prime Minister's Office vowed to maintain a vigilant defense.

On June 19, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo promised to look thoroughly into what went wrong with maritime border surveillance and who was responsible.

Calling the case "a very grave situation," Jeong demanded that the military tighten operational and work discipline and push for measures to prevent such incidents.

"We have to look thoroughly into how border surveillance operations are going and whoever is found responsible in this process should be sternly held to account," Jeong said.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) called on the defense minister to resign because he was responsible for "lack of discipline and the loophole in maritime border patrols."

LKP floor leader Na Kyung-won said on June 19, "The security of the Republic of Korea is not being defended by the military. Fishermen are defending the country."

"It is not time for Minister Jeong to look into who is accountable for the incident. He should immediately resign."

LKP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said the inter-Korean military agreement should be scrapped and called for combat readiness to be restored.

"What if it was not a fishing boat, but a spy ship?" Hwang said. "The Moon administration's move to loosen the military's alertness brought about the latest boat incident."

The minor opposition Bareunmirae Party suggested the military might be trying to cover up the incident.

Another minor opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Peace, called for a parliamentary probe into what caused the military to be so lax.

On June 20, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon apologized to the public.

"What has been disclosed so far has caused the people an enormous concern," Lee said. I deeply apologize over that."

He called for a thorough investigation and punishment of those responsible.

"The whole truth of the incident, including the military's security posture and reaction, should be thoroughly investigated," he said. "The results of the investigation will be transparently disclosed to the public and anybody found responsible will be held sternly accountable."

Lee ordered that steps to correct the situation be introduced swiftly to prevent a recurrence of such a mistake.

Also on June 20, President Moon instructed the military to look thoroughly into why it failed to spot the North Korean fishing boat.

Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said Moon told Minister Jeong to "thoroughly check" whether there were problems connected to the failure to detect the vessel and to provide the people with adequate information immediately.

Ko dismissed multiple media reports that Cheong Wa Dae, the military and other relevant authorities had sought to cover up the truth.

She pointed out that in cases involving North Korean ships and crews reaching South Korea, keeping details secret was a principle aimed at ensuring security and safety.

The relevant manual allowed a "brief explanation" of some facts when media exposure was needed, Ko added.

The defense ministry has set up a panel to look into what went wrong with maritime operations.

The panel involves about 30 officials from the ministry and the military as well as experts in military operations.

The probe, began on June 21, is expected to last about a week.

"The focus will be on whether the military's surveillance systems were operated appropriately and what caused them to fail to detect the North Korean ship," a military official said.

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