Seoul Searching: U.S. Officials Question South Korea Readiness To Fight Off the North

Defense Ministry Fears Japan More Than Pyongyang As Long-Term Threat --- Morale and Ammo Both Low

SEOUL, South Korea -- Military planners in South Korea first started whispering about the "360-degree defense" about four years ago. It has since become the worst-kept secret within South Korea's usually tight-lipped defense community, and a source of growing concern and annoyance in Washington.

"They won't come out and say it, but it means defense against threats outside the peninsula, and that means Japan," says the Seoul representative of a U.S. defense manufacturer. "Everyone understands it, and you have to keep it in mind if you want to do business here."

Still scarred viscerally by a series of invasions and occupations from Japan over the past 500 years, South Korea is building a sophisticated arsenal designed to ward off its ancient rival after the divided peninsula eventually reunifies and the U.S. withdraws its troops from the region.

"History shows that the relationship between countries can change any time," says Yoo Chan Yul, a fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. "Relations between South Korea and Japan are OK now, but we have to do our best to protect ourselves" in the future.

But a number of U.S. and South Korean officials, junior-level Korean troops and recently discharged conscripts say there is a problem with Seoul's preoccupation with Japan: the neglect of the more-immediate ground threat from the north. That attitude is rooted in the Seoul defense establishment's belief that the U.S. military presence is an airtight psychological deterrent against war.

Increasingly, U.S. defense officials in Seoul and Washington are expressing frustration with South Korea's resistance to buying basic weapons systems. They also would like the defense ministry to spend more on building a corps of quality noncommissioned officers -- the layer between conscripts and officers -- to bolster its readiness against Pyongyang's million-man army. Owing in part to a lack of funding, morale in the South Korean army has plummeted; a rash of insubordination and mutiny has mortified the Ministry of National Defense, prompting the resignation of two ministers in as many years.

"In case of an attack {from North Korea} it would be chaos," says Cpl. Cho, a clerk to a company commander, who asks that his first name not be used. Cpl. Cho maintains that, in his company, soldiers are showing decreasing respect for commanding officers. He thinks that "our officers would not be able to control their men."

Kim Dong Gil, a legislator and former dissident who left his hometown in North Korea for Seoul in 1946, has similar misgivings. "A retired brigadier general came to see me recently and said the military isn't prepared and the men are not willing to fight," he says. "Some say an attack from North Korea is unthinkable because the U.S. is here, but there is a limit to what the Americans can do."

The state of South Korea's combat readiness is the subject of a lengthy report compiled two months ago by the U.S. General Accounting Office at the request of Congress. U.S. diplomats and defense officials in Washington and Seoul say the report, due for release in the next few weeks, describes a demoralized South Korean army and a ground force compromised by an errant procurement policy.

"The Koreans spell deterrence against North Korea U-S-A," says a former U.S. defense official based in Washington who recently served as a senior officer in Seoul and is familiar with the GAO report. "Our presence is allowing South Korea to build up an arsenal that could potentially destabilize the region, and that is working against our interests."

South Korea is investing in submarines, spy planes and satellites, and a fleet of new home-built destroyers. Such a force, analysts note, is of better use against regional threats in the next century than against North Korea today. "We must be prepared for the worst . . . after reunification," says Ahn Chung Si, a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

South Korea's preparedness has come under growing scrutiny since the dispute over North Korea's suspected nuclear-weapons program erupted in early 1992 and a delicate and murky transfer of power began last August with the death of the Stalinist patriarch Kim Il Sung. North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world, most of which is deployed in an offensive posture along the peninsula's highly fortified demilitarized zone.

Repeated requests for interviews of senior South Korean military and defense officials for this article were rejected. Officials at South Korea's national security agency also declined to be interviewed.

A spokesman for the U.S. forces in Seoul says that there is room for improvement in South Korea's front-line defenses, but that the U.S. command is generally satisfied with its ally's focus. "They would never put at risk U.S. forces as a result of their procurement strategy," he says.

Weaknesses in South Korea's ground forces were described in a report three years ago by the U.S. commander in Korea at the time, Gen. Robert RisCassi. The report, submitted to the defense ministry, lists a number of weapons systems the Pentagon believes Seoul should have to deter an invasion from Pyongyang.

The list includes long-range counter-artillery radar to help neutralize North Korea's huge howitzer force, night-vision gear for helicopter units and an electronic information-gathering system. Defense specialists estimate the cost of such hardware at about $100 million.

Following a visit to South Korea last March by Secretary of Defense William Perry, the South Korean defense ministry pledged it would purchase most of the weaponry described in the report. Since then, however, the systems have come under criticism by some defense-ministry officials as ineffective or unnecessary, and none have been purchased. (The ministry has given an oral commitment to buy the night-vision equipment.) Some South Korean government and defense officials bridle at what they say is a crude attempt by the Pentagon to boost weapons sales on behalf of U.S. arms manufacturers.

Nor has the South Korean military addressed what U.S. officials and some junior Korean soldiers say is the South Korean army's acute shortage of ammunition and spare parts. Last June, when the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclearweapons program edged precariously close to war, the commanding officers of South Korea's four military services gathered for an emergency meeting to plot logistics. They concluded that their troops lacked $375 million worth of equipment and ammunition needed to sustain them through 45 days worth of fighting, the minimum anticipated in most attack scenarios, according to a senior U.S. defense official in Seoul.

The U.S., still South Korea's major arms source, has refused to share the core technology behind its more sophisticated weapons, for fear it will lose control over how they are used. In response, the defense ministry is purchasing a growing share of its arsenal from countries less queasy about technology transfer.

That has caused a rift between Seoul and Washington over the compatibility of the two forces' arsenals. Last year Seoul purchased the Mistral, a French-made antiaircraft missile launcher, over the U.S.-made Stinger, largely because the Pentagon wouldn't release the Stingers' missile-guidance technology, Korean defense officials say.

U.S. forces in South Korea use the Stinger, which has a mechanism that allows the gunner to identify allied or hostile aircraft. But the South Korean Mistrals lack such a system, and U.S. defense officials say this raises the risk of death by friendly fire in the event of war.

Increasingly, Seoul is choosing to develop its own sophisticated weapons as part of a strategy to localize defense industries. It recently announced plans to build jet trainers rather than buy aircraft from foreign sources, despite emergency requests from the air force for new models and despite the underdeveloped state of the country's aerospace industry.

Meanwhile, according to a retired senior official of the South Korean air force, existing trainers are so outdated and overworked that the air force has been forced to cut back on sorties. The subsequent decline in flying time is taking its toll on 20 British-made Hawk jets Seoul purchased in 1993 for advanced training; cadets have crashed three of them in the past six months.

Korean military planners say that their procurement policy is sound and that the U.S. is overstating concerns to pressure them into buying American weaponry. In an interview last year, a defense-ministry official said Korea would continue pursuing an independent procurement policy. "We have many priorities in arms purchases: pricing, combat effectiveness and technology transfer," he said. "Sometimes, one overrides the others."

Yet Seoul is beginning to share U.S. concerns over the decline in morale among its army's 650,000 conscripts. Since the election two years ago of South Korea's first civilian president, popular resentment has mushroomed against an army that spawned a string of military dictatorships. The army offers scant career prospects for South Korea's increasingly affluent, well-educated young men, most of whom regard their 36-month mandatory service as an inconvenience on their way to white-collar jobs.

Reports of insubordination are rife. In October, three lieutenants deserted to protest a series of allegedly mutinous acts. An ensuing crackdown by authorities led to the arrest of 29 soldiers; a month later, a conscript at a firing exercise shot two officers dead and wounded a third before killing himself; early this month, a top-ranked graduate of the army's officer-training school was arrested for a botched attempt to rob a bank with an unloaded rifle and bayonet.

Such incidents have inspired a 56% increase in the 1995 defense budget for training, education and equipment management. Cpl. Cho, who complains of shortages of ammunition and equipment, says troops in his company are often allotted as little as three rounds during target practice and are issued gas masks designed to protect against tear gas, not the lethal chemical weapons in North Korea's huge, toxic arsenal. "The good masks are in storage," Mr. Cho says. "And often there are not enough. A surprise attack would wipe us out."

For a measure of how far discipline has eroded, newly discharged Koreans say, consider one of the army's mandatory four-day refresher courses. Instead of training, reservists sit through a series of lectures and outdated training films. After each lunch break, hapless corporals are obliged to prod and cajole many reservists back into the lecture halls.

Says a 32-year-old merchant banker who participated in one course: "I wouldn't mind attending these things if they were rigorous, because I believe we have to be prepared against North Korea. But the way it is now, it's a joke."