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[Lee Jae-min] What went wrong? It’s time to look at the military’s security posture

The poor police officer who got the call may have scoffed, thinking it was a prank. Imagine the caller saying something like this: “I have just talked to four people claiming to have come from the North. They are standing on the quay.”

Then imagine the startled police officers rushing to the scene. Recent media photos of South Korean police officers talking to the crew of a North Korean boat that apparently strayed into South Korean waters captured exactly this bizarre encounter.

The story of a North Korean boat, just 10 meters long, crisscrossing South Korea’s territorial waters for several days in the East Sea, then approaching a major port and finally docking at its quay without ever being detected or stopped, is almost surreal. In the photos, the four men on board seem to be on a day trip, looking relaxed, hands in their pockets. Here is the funny part: One even asked a passerby for a cellphone to make a call.

This is what happened 10 days ago in Samcheok, a port city on the east coast. An investigation is underway to find out just what happened and how it happened.

Sometimes accidents do happen. Things fall through the cracks. It may be the case that a string of coincidences led to the boat’s arrival at the port city.

It may also be the case that this incident is telling evidence of a structural problem. Does it reflect a lax security posture in the aftermath of the inter-Korean rapprochement since last year? Opposition parties are homing in on this possibility.

Probably, it’s a combination of the two. The investigation will tell.

Whichever story we hear at the end of the day, at least one thing is clear. Thankfully, there is a common thread running through all the statements from government and political leaders about the incident, making this a rare occasion when we are hearing one national voice. To paraphrase: The rapprochement policy and the peace process have no business affecting the military’s alertness and preparedness.

Very true. It is such a basic principle that it does not need repeating. But now seems like a good time to reaffirm the obvious with one voice.

If its aftermath is handled properly and the right lessons are learned, the boat incident could be a bitter but effective antidote. It could serve as a cautionary tale about the security posture of the armed forces. It could offer an opportunity to turn over every stone to ensure vigilance.

Consider another incident that took place during the same week, on June 20. Two Russian bombers entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone over the East Sea, prompting Air Force fighters to scramble. Over the past couple of years there has been a trend toward more and more foreign military aircraft encroaching on this space -- yet another reason to maintain sharpened discipline and a vigilant security posture.

That said, we should be careful not to exaggerate or overplay the boat incident for political gain. Similarly, downplaying it or even covering it up for fear of political consequences would be equally disastrous. Either way, politicization of an incident like this would be wrong and harmful. It would inevitably amount to politicization of the military -- absolutely the last thing we would want at this juncture. It is worrying to see the incident snowball into a political scandal, rather than a serious effort to find the problems and fix them.

There is no room for political considerations in military operations. Permitting them to intrude would be a grave mistake, given where this country stands now. If the wooden vessel incident reminds us of this basic principle and forces us to adjust our stance accordingly, then it will have served as a valuable lesson. Full transparency and a thorough investigation are essential.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.