S. Korea hit by a wave of military mishaps

US still 'comfortable' with key ally. But did South Korean soldiers tell secrets to North?

Despite the modern bustle of South Korea, ringing with Christmas carols and jammed with holiday shoppers in these festive days, America's Army considers it a "war zone."

The sacrifices made by US troops defending South Korea - some 36,000 US personnel are stationed there - are most acute during the holiday season, when soldiers think of families not allowed to accompany them on this "hardship tour."

Efforts to defuse the political tension on this peninsula are under way. Next month's "four party" peace talks represent another attempt by the US, China, and the two Koreas to wrap up Korea's half-century conflict.

Complications still surface. Last Friday, in the wee hours, South Korea sank a North Korean spy boat during a chase. The small win buoyed spirits in South Korea's military, and perhaps reassured the US.

But a month of blunders and new allegations about cross-border contacts between soldiers have South Korea's armed forces in the headlines and under fire.

Since mid-November, 11 servicemen have been crushed by tanks, been killed in explosions, or have committed suicide. Another two killed each other in a fight. In Inchon, a major city west of Seoul, an antiaircraft missile accidentally launched, self-destructed in midair, and rained debris on civilians and cars.

The military blames faulty wiring for the accidental launch. But as with the flare bomb that landed on an elderly woman's house, and the officers who fiddled with a 90-mm shell in their lounge until it exploded, outsiders have blamed military incompetence. A month earlier, five South Korean boats ran aground while pursuing a North Korean spy ship.

Most damaging, perhaps, are allegations that South Korean soldiers have been accepting gifts from North Korean soldiers - and perhaps divulging information - during illegal meetings in Panmunjom, the diplomatic village straddling Korea's demilitarized zone. A certain Sergeant Kim met North Koreans 30 times between July and December 1997, allegedly receiving contraband goods including cigarettes. Another soldier got a Rolex watch.

In February, Kim's commanding officer died in suspicious circumstances. When news of the contacts emerged this month, the National Assembly reopened the investigation, suspecting the senior officer was murdered. An earlier inquiry unconvincingly concluded it was suicide.

"Can we trust the military?" asked an editorial in The Korea Herald.

The defense minister and others have been reprimanded, and a few relieved of command. But the string of incidents has aroused concerns about South Korea's military that are reminiscent of 1996. Then, during South Korea's most recent large-scale operation, 60,000 troops combed the countryside for 25 North Korean commandos who had fled their grounded submarine.

Discipline problems hampered the search. The government essentially sent "[university] students in uniform to hunt North Korean special forces," notes Michael Breen, a North Korea expert based in Sussex, England.

EVERY able-bodied South Korean male must dedicate two years and two months to the armed services, and eight years in the reserves. But many middle-class recruits detest conscription, feeling it is a waste of their time.

Some university students complain that South Korea's military is unprofessional. One reservist recounted that at refresher training this summer it was raining, so they watched videos all day.

Many envy America's volunteer army, and hope someday South Korea can have a professional army. "In Korea, being a soldier is not a good job," says one ex-soldier. It wasn't always so. In the 1950s, graduates of the Korean Military Academy took top jobs, including the presidency. Until the mid-1970s, the military was the leading edge of technology, education, and administration, attracting the best and brightest.

But society and business have since overtaken the military. Vietnam was the last war South Korea fought in, and its military has bureaucratized. These days it can't easily retain quality personnel in lower ranks. And commanding officers are often not fully respected by conscripts, who often have better educations.

Top American officials acknowledge some shortcomings but say they feel they would be comfortable fighting side by side again with South Korea. "We train 'joint and combined' every day, and our training equates to a very high readiness," says US Army spokeswoman Lee Ferguson. The US has supported South Korea since fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, in which South Koreans proved to be among the toughest and most reliable fighters.

Yang Sung Jin, recently discharged as a sergeant, says things aren't as bad as they seem. Six weeks of boot camp is "no joke," and South Korean soldiers are "pretty professional," he says. There is "no [quality difference] between US and South Korean soldiers," says Mr. Yang.

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