Moon Jae-in’s “Spring Cleaning” of the Old Guard

P 19.12.2018 U Konstantin Asmolov

On 30 August, South Korea’s President replaced several ministers including the Minister of National Defense. Jeong Kyeong-do, who was a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was appointed as the new minister. He is the first appointee to have come from the Air Force in the past 24 years.

The former minister, Song Young-moo, was forced to retire because of “mistakes” he had committed. And evil tongues say these errors included the fact that he was not ardent enough in uncovering evidence in the “military plot case”, i.e. a plan developed to introduce martial law if the Constitutional Court of Korea reached a decision not to impeach Park Geun-hye.

We would like to remind our readers that South Korea’s defense intelligence agency (the so-called Defense Security Command (DSC) with its functions including military intelligence and counterintelligence) was the key player in this case.  According to a document, which was publicized with the aid of an informant from the intelligence agency, the Defense Security Command put together a 67-page emergency plan to introduce martial law, which was to be executed if the Constitutional Court of Korea were to rule not to impeach Park Geun-hye. The military personnel had intended to deploy hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, and thousands of soldiers and special forces personnel to the largest cities of the nation, and take over the government, parliament, the media outlets and other state agencies.

In reality, at a time when mass protests were taking place over the impeachment process of the former President Park Geun-hye, the plan involved only the possibility of declaring a state of emergency if the Constitutional Court decided to keep the President in power and people started to come out in protest. But Moon Jae-in and the media outlets under his control depicted this plan as preparations for a military coup.

All in all, the use of martial law in emergency situations, which allows the army to deploy forces to re-establish law and order, began in South Korea 68 years ago.   But the main issue was that the leadership was able to declare a state of emergency without approval from parliament, hence, in large part, such means were used to quell mass protests.

Incidentally, it came to light that during the former President’s term, the Ministry of National Defense had prepared a plan that made provisions for deploying the military to DPRK and establishing complete control over the country if Kim Jong-un were to be toppled from power or in the event of other crises situations. In South Korea itself, martial law was to be introduced. The author does not see any evil intentions behind this plan, but Moon Jae-in and his administration presented it as such.

It was also revealed that the DSC eavesdropped on telephone calls between the Minister of National Defense and the President Roh Moo-hyun, who was the nation’s leader from 2003 to 2008. The DSC was famed for its conservatism and anti-North Korean stance, while Roh Moo-hyun was actively attempting to develop ties with Pyongyang.

Consequently, having studied the results of the investigation, as well as recommendations by the committee on reforming the DSC, Moon Jae-in issued an order to completely disband the DSC and create a new agency in its place, whose capabilities would be significantly reduced. And as of 1 September, a new agency, called Defense Security Support Command (DSSC), began its official operations in South Korea. The Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo unveiled the new agency during a special ceremony. Defense Security Support Command is tasked with gathering intelligence information, connected to national defense, and deterring subversive activities aimed against the government. The new agency is led by the Lieutenant General Nam Young-sin, who promised that from then onwards the military intelligence agency would never get involved in domestic politics or spy on those critical of the government. The new agency has 2,900 staff members, which is 30% less, in terms of personnel, than in the previous organization.

On 11 September, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in held a cabinet meeting, where the plan to introduce martial law was repealed. The reason, given to justify this decision, was that it was impractical to use military force during civilian protests, which in any case had not been used in the past 30 years. Besides, it was noted that there was no legal basis behind such measures, and that they also violated the Constitution in many ways.

In reality, it came to light during a parliamentary inspection that, during the process of Roh Moo-hyun’s impeachment in 2004, the Defense Security Command put together a similar plan that involved deploying the military to quell discontent if the impeachment were to take place and dissatisfied citizens came out in protest. But this, as they say, is another matter altogether.

At the same time, there is an ongoing shake up of the top military brass. As far back as August, homes of the former Minister of National Defense, Han Min-goo, and of the ex-chief of the DSC, Cho Hyun-chun, were searched. According to the spokesperson for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the investigators confiscated a sufficient number of documents that were meant to shed light on the origins of the plan to introduce martial law in the nation.

In October 2018, investigators summoned two former Ministers of National Defense, Han Min-goo and Kim Kwan-jin, for questioning in order to establish whether they had exerted any influence on the plan to declare a national state of emergency. But both officials denied such allegations, stating that they were not in any way involved in the plot or drafting of the document.

The investigation of this case is expected to take a longer time, because the whereabouts of Cho Hyun-chun remain unknown. At the moment, he (together with his family) is somewhere in the United States, and is suspected of issuing the order to his colleagues to draft the document in question in February of last year.

The team of investigators appealed to Cho Hyun-chun to return home for questioning, but he has failed to comply with the request. As a result, upon investigators’ demands, Cho Hyun-chun’s passport was annulled and the Interpol was tasked with establishing his whereabouts.

However, it is unlikely that Cho Hyun-chun will return home, especially against the backdrop of a former DSC chief, the 60-year-old retired three-star General Lee Jae-su committing suicide on 7 December 2018 by jumping from a building.  The suicide occurred at a time when Lee Jae-su was accused of being involved in the illegal surveillance of families of victims, who had died in the 2014 Sewol Ferry Disaster that led to 300 deaths. Since the tragedy was quickly politicized and used against the ruling government, the investigators accused the former chief of ordering (obviously under the instruction from the former President Park Geun-hye) his subordinates to collect intelligence about any possible wrongdoings, committed by any members of the victims’ families, in order to mobilize public opinion against them. Still, there was not enough evidence to make an arrest.

The Ministry of National Defense did not issue any comments about this. It is public knowledge that a suicide note was discovered on the body but its contents remain unknown. But what is actually important is that when a person accused of a crime in South Korea commits suicide (it is not important if they do so of their own free will or because they were persecuted by the “enraged public”), then, on the one hand, they have paid for their crime with blood and the case against them can be closed. But, on the other hand, it is believed that the deceased must have been guilty, otherwise, instead of committing suicide, they would have tried to prove their innocence. This, by the way, is something the former President Roh Moo-hyun actively made use of. Under his leadership inciting his political opponents to commit suicide by persecuting them with the help of the national media outlets and pro-governmental NGOs became, we could say, the regime’s signature move.

Nevertheless, it is not worth viewing the “the reforms of the military 2.0”, introduced by Moon Jae-in, as the only means of cracking down on the military opposition, or, in conservatives’ opinion, as making concessions to the North. But this is a topic for future articles by the author.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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