By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 2 (Yonhap) -- The Army used to be the indisputably dominant branch in South Korea's military for decades, with its retirees occupying key policymaking posts and its generals taking the helm of joint forces and defense intelligence operations.
But it has experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes over the past year, as its members have been mired in allegations of political interference that have sapped public confidence and troop morale, and prompted calls for reform.
The waning of its influence was more palpable last Friday when Defense Minister Song Young-moo announced a reform blueprint that seeks to slash the number of Army personnel by 118,000, including 66 general-grade officers, by 2022.
"It is like the Army has been thrust into the wilderness," an Army officer told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity. "In the past, our officers were in high positions, but we now feel that we are facing the wind and rain without any shelter ... without any umbrella."
Just years ago, the 490,000-strong Army dominated top defense positions, including the defense minister and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) -- the two seats that guide the country's military policy and contingency operations.
But now, Song, who served as the chief of naval operations from 2006-2008, helms the defense ministry, while Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo leads the JCS -- a change that has raised hopes for enhanced inter-service cooperation but has demoralized the Army.
Above all, the most daunting challenge is public distrust associated with the Army's past records of political interference, including the authoritarian rule of former general-turned-presidents in the 1960s-1980s, who sought economic development and national security at the expense of democratic values.
"It is true that the deep-seated distrust stems from the era of the military-backed governments," said Lee Jung-hyun, an office worker in Seoul.
"To regain trust, I think that the Army should craft legal and institutional measures to ensure its political neutrality. If necessary, punishments for political interventions should also be toughened," he added.
The distrust has worsened amid allegations that the Army-led Defense Security Command (DSC) drew up a document over the possible imposition of martial law to quash anti-government protests last year.
The DSC has already faced a crisis of confidence, as some of its staff were accused of posting political comments online to skew public opinion in favor of the two former conservative governments.
The Army had long boasted its preponderance in the 625,000-strong military due in part to military threats from 1.1 million North Korean ground troops and the overall military strategy that stresses the role of foot soldiers in contingencies and post-crisis missions.
The Army-centric military structure dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War during which a poor South Korea was forced to rely on cheap manpower to construct a rudimentary force to fight alongside U.N. troops to repel the North's aggression.
But its overwhelming presence has triggered concerns that the important roles of the Navy and Air Force would continue to be overshadowed in a way that would hamper cooperation among all armed branches, a critical factor for efficient crisis responses.
"During the Korean War, we strongly felt the significance of the ground troops. That is why we built an Army-centric military heavily reliant on ground troops, and that structure has continued up until now," a security expert said, declining to be identified.
"The problem is that structure doesn't fit the current trends when we are seeking to pursue high-tech arms. ... The Army should understand how the Navy works for jointness, while the Navy also needs to grasp the Army strategies and tactics for its own reinvention," he added.
Amid a growing sense of crisis, the Army, led by Gen. Kim Yong-woo, has been revving up reform efforts with a long-term vision. For that vision, it has recently launched the Korea Army Research Center for Future & Innovation, consisting of 20 resident experts, including 12 active-duty officers, and some 200 visiting scholars, all with doctorate degrees.
"Along with our original role of national defense, we are pondering the new role for a future Army that goes in line with the shifting security environment," the Army chief of staff said during a form on the Army's power in June.
Kim, at the forum, stressed three major roles of the Army: the final "assurer" of national defense, the "builder" for peace on the peninsula, and the "connector" that enables young conscripts to cultivate expertise in certain areas and later contribute to society.
As for the Army's reform, Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, pointed out the need to overcome the old paradigm marked by such factors as the structural dependence on the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
"Indeed, the confluence of political, economic and strategic constraints embedded in South Korea's traditional security paradigm precluded the implementation of selected defense reforms at the operational level, where the ROK Army has struggled to overcome a range of technical and interoperability problems in conducting full-spectrum joint military operations, i.e. obtaining a common operational picture, coordinating intelligence, ensuring information security, and enabling cooperative command, control and communication capabilities," he said.
"These challenges can be attributed to the traditional force structure design and its ramifications, i.e. inter-service divides, technological and operational deficiencies with the U.S. forces, and arguably, the lack of direct and diverse combat experience," he added.
Amid worsening public sentiment against the Army, some experts noted that the Army's role may be still important when the North Korean threats remain high despite ongoing efforts for cross-border rapprochement.
"Still, we cannot rule out the possibility of a full-blown war on the peninsula," said Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University. "In case of a sudden unrest in the North, there also needs to be many ground forces that would undertake a post-crisis stabilization mission.
Park also pointed out that Washington's growing focus on naval and aerial power could mean the need for Seoul to play a central role in providing ground forces during allied operations in case of a contingency.
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