The South Korean government announced Tuesday that the South Korea-U.S. Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise would be divided into the Ulchi Taegeuk exercise and Freedom Guardian exercise starting from next year. The UFG exercise, originally slated for August, had been earlier suspended amid denuclearization talks with North Korea. Also, the newly incorporated Taegeuk exercise this year will be launched in October with the Hoguk field training drill.
On the surface, the merger of military exercises seems to be signaling Seoul’s will to continue internal drills regardless of ongoing talks with the North. Yet, some say that the decision may indicate the extended suspension or possible termination of South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises. Ironically, the South Korean government appears to be preparing for a departure from an alliance with the United States when voices calling for the resumption of joint military drills are rising in Washington with the denuclearization talks in stalemate. It is worrisome that there will be inevitable confusion in resuming the joint military exercises if the talks end in failure, and that North Korea may get the wrong message that Seoul-Washington joint military drills will be permanently suspended.
Moreover, the government’s latest moves regarding the military have been confusing overall. In particular, a military reform that has gone missing clearly shows where the country’s military currently stands. The government has yet to come up with the final draft of a “Military Reform 2.0” plan, which was initially planned to be finalized by May. The delay has also pushed back to next year the military’s plan to launch a single ground operation command by integrating its first and third command bodies. Plans to cut the size of troops and period of service are said to be implemented as planned, but the establishment of a “three pillar system” (Kill Chain, Missile Defense and Massive Retaliation) to respond to North Korea’s provocations is likely to be scaled down. Yet, the transfer of the currently U.S.-controlled wartime operational command of South Korean armed forces is expected to be brought forward.
Amid such chaos, the military command unit is faltering. While the South Korean military should not loosen up when the North has not begun making progress towards denuclearization, the command seems to be at a loss, being indecisive without any principles. Even Defense Minister Song Young-moo’s “mouth” makes one nervous as he has come under fire due to his anachronistic comments about women. A series of cases that involve military generals’ sexual violence have been also reported. This proves that rules are not being complied by and discipline is lax within the military.
For sure, the military should take a flexible approach in its response when security circumstances rapidly change. It is also true that there are always more demands for the transfer of military resources into the private sector under the name of “peace dividend” whenever inter-Korean relations are thawing. However, the military, as the last bastion of national security, must not be shaking in any circumstances. The military’s indecisiveness only makes people anxious.