ROK leadership shifts from active duty to civilian-led

ROK leadership shifts from active duty to civilian-led

Felix Kim

A shift in the leadership of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces from active duty military officers to civilians is underway.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised the transition during his election campaign in early 2017, and his administration recently made three appointments to leadership positions at ROK’s Ministry of National Defense (MND). Observers view the shift as the removal of the last remnants of the military-led regime that governed ROK from 1979 to 1987 as it matures into a developed and democratic nation.

The new chief of MND’s policy office is Yeo Suk-joo, a retired ROK Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, according to Yonhap, the government-affiliated ROK news agency. The ministry also named two career civil servants — Lee Nam-woo and Kim Jeong-sup — to lead the Office of Personnel and Welfare and the Office of Planning and Coordination, respectively.

“Yeo left the Marine Corps in 2010,” Kim Jae-yeop, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of National Defense Strategy at Hannam University, told FORUM. “His post is important, as he needs to deal with key defense agendas such as the ROK-U.S. Alliance and military meetings with North Korea. Lee Nam-woo and Kim Jeong-sup are long-serving bureaucrats, who have served various posts at the Defense Ministry. Lee was involved in the relocation of the U.S. Forces Korea, and he will deal with human resource management and welfare programs. Kim, with the degree in science of international politics, will deal with finance-related work.

“A civilian-led Defense Ministry was one of President Moon’s presidential pledges,” said Kim, “and a core part of the defense reform that he has pushed forward with since he took office.”

(Pictured: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, and Defense Minister Song Young-moo review the troops during a commemoration ceremony marking South Korea’s Armed Forces Day, October 1, 2017.)

Kim listed three reasons behind Moon’s decision for a civilian-led MND. First, it represents a change in focus of the country’s defense capabilities from one centered on land defense and the Army to one that includes a larger role for its Navy and Air Force. Second, it exemplifies a move toward professional civilian leadership with longer terms of office than those typically held by active-duty officers. Third, it presents a rationale for civilian leadership at MND to avoid lapsing into an incident such as those that sparked the two military coups that occurred in ROK in 1961 and 1979, both resulting in periods of military rule over the country.

“The government has also planned to regain wartime operational control from the U.S.,” Kim said. “For this, the balanced development of the Army, Navy and Air Force is necessary with less reliance on the ally. Therefore, key posts, including the defense minister, should be filled by those who are free from the influence of the Army.”

The current ROK defense minister is Song Young-moo, a retired Navy admiral and former chief of the ROK Navy.

New opportunities, according to Kim, will be opening at MND for civilian professionals with relevant experience, as well as for retired officers from the Air Force and Navy, reflecting the trend away from an Army focus. In his view, the transition at MND to civilian leadership is firmly taking hold.

“There are five office chiefs at the Ministry of National Defense, right below the vice-minister in terms of rank,” Kim said. “With the latest appointments, three of them are now filled by civilians, which shows the strong will of the Moon Jae-in administration for the transition to a civilian-led defense ministry.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.