By Na Jeong-ju
A presidential panel on defense reform proposed Monday that the government drop its ongoing plan to gradually reduce the mandatory military service period, and instead restore it to 24 months as part of measures to counter North Korea’s military threat.
The Presidential Commission for National Security Review also called on the country to double the number of marines and transform them into a “rapid reaction force” so that they can respond more effectively to future possible North Korean aggression.
Such measures were included in a 71-point reform plan, proposed to President Lee Myung-bak at a defense policy coordination meeting at Cheong Wa Dae.
The country has been gradually reducing the service period under the “Military Reform Plan 2020,” mapped out in 2005 under the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration. The program calls for the military to cut the service period to 18 months by 2014, from the current average of 21 months.
The panel, launched after the sinking of the warship Cheonan last March, advised Lee to reconsider the reduction plan and restore the service period to two years, citing the growing security threat from Pyongyang.
The government plans to increase the defense budget gradually so that the military can purchase advanced technological weapons and other systems to make up for its declining manpower.
The panel also recommended reinstating advantages for those who served in the military when they apply for positions at public offices, a system abolished in 1999 by a Constitutional Court ruling following strong protests against it by women’s rights groups.
If the proposals are accepted, the number of marines, a core force in defending the country’s western border islands, would increase to around 12,000 from the current 5,000, according to the presidential office.
Reinforcing the Marine Corp is in line with President Lee’s pledge to enhance combat readiness following North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four people — two marines and two civilians — and destroyed dozens of civilian homes.
At Monday’s meeting, Lee stressed the need to bolster defense capabilities.
“We must improve our military hardware, but what is more important is to have commanders who are mentally stronger,” Lee said, according to senior presidential secretary for public relations Hong Sang-pyo.
With regard to the combat capability of South Korean troops, the commission proposed that the country have a proactive deterrence strategy to prepare for various types of provocation from North Korea. It also called for boosting the military’s ability to conduct cyber warfare, Hong said.