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(LEAD) Presidential body calls for restoring 24-month military service term

All Headlines 16:41 December 06, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with President Lee's comments, details; CHANGES headline)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- A presidential security panel proposed Monday that South Korea reverse the ongoing reduction of its mandatory military service period and more than double the number of its marines stationed on western border islands.

In its report to President Lee Myung-bak, the Commission for National Security Review also called for the creation of a new top military command to replace the Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to enhance the joint operational capability of the Army, Navy and Air Force, according to Lee's office Cheong Wa Dae.

The policy suggestions included in the panel's 71-point report came after North Korea's Nov. 23 deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island close to the Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas. The attack killed two marines and two civilians, and put the government under renewed pressure to plug security loopholes already laid bare in the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo attack, that left 46 sailors dead.

In the commission meeting, the president stressed the need for a far-reaching military reform.

"What the military needs now is spiritual strength," Lee was quoted as saying by Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Hong Sang-pyo. "There are several organizations that hardly change while the world changes."

Lee pointed out South Korea's military remains tied excessively to formality, adding he will directly handle the urgent task of reforming it.

The ad-hoc commission, launched after the ship sinking, said South Korea should turn the Marine Corps into a "Rapid Reaction Force" and increase the number of marines stationed on the five western border islands to around 12,000 from the current 5,000 by creating another division. The panel ended its formal activity with the final report to the president.

The commission composed of civilian experts also called for restoring the 24-month military service period, the spokesman said.

South Korea has been curtailing the period under the "Military Reform Plan 2020" crafted in 2005 by the then Roh Moo-hyun administration, which sought to ease military tensions on the peninsula by engaging the North.

The military service term is a highly sensitive issue in a country where all male adults who are physically and mentally healthy are obliged to serve in the military with a monthly pay of about US$100.

The panel also recommended improving the welfare of troops and reinstating advantages for those who served in the military when hiring civil servants and public firm employees, a system abolished in 1999 following strong protests against it by women's rights groups, Hong said.


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