Defector's Return Exposes Another Security Blind Spot

      August 03, 2020 14:02

      A North Korean defector who escaped back to the North on July 18 was caught on military surveillance equipment not once, but seven times, but nobody took any notice. The man, who was accused of sexual harassment here, was caught five times by short and mid-range monitoring equipment and CCTV cameras and twice by thermal-imaging sensors operated by the Marine Corps as he crawled through a drainage pipe and swam back to the North. But the military was completely oblivious of his escape until North Korea's state media crowed about it on July 26. South Korean soldiers at a marine guard post who were monitoring the cameras were allegedly unable to identify the defector due to forest fires on the North Korean side.

      But the Marine guard post was only staffed on three shifts due to a shortage of personnel, instead of four as required. Six hours is commonly seen as the maximum number of hours a human can maintain focus, but each shift had been stretched out to eight hours. The Joint Chiefs of Staffs said some areas are "difficult" to distinguish with surveillance equipment, which means trained personnel are needed to watch the monitors.

      According to President Moon Jae-in's defense reform plans, South Korea's standing forces are gradually being reduced from 618,000 in July of 2018 to 500,000 by 2022. That is leading to a 1.2-fold increase of the part of the frontline area overseen by each military division. The mandatory military service is also being shortened from 21 to 18 months, and this means 67 percent of soldiers will fail to become fully familiar with their duties before their discharge. The side effects of these changes are only just starting to become apparent in the latest debacle.

      There were concerns early on whether a South Korean military of just 500,000 troops would now be able to take on the 1.28-million-strong North Korean military where soldiers get seven to 10 years of hardened experience. The South Korean military boasted that high-tech drones and unmanned surveillance aircraft will easily compensate for any shortfall. But what use is expensive equipment if nobody knows how to operate it?

      What would have happened if North Korean special forces troops had infiltrated the other way by the same route? There have been many instances where military facilities were breached. In March this year, a drunk infiltrated an air defense shelter in Siheung, Gyeonggi Province and stayed there for an hour before being caught, while a senile elderly man entered a Navy base in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang Province unnoticed and wandered around for an hour. Every time the military is found guilty of a flagrant security breach, the defense minister apologizes and vows to come up remedies, but nothing is ever done. What will he promise this time?

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