Seoul pulling plug on military exchange

TIES THAT BIND::Under the program began in 1974, South Korean officers could study at ROC military academies and vice versa. Beijing has long sought an end to it

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  Staff Reporter

Thu, May 05, 2011 - Page 1

South Korea has confirmed that a 40-year-old military officer exchange program with the Republic of China (ROC) would end soon because it will launch a similar program with China, a Taiwanese government official said yesterday.

“We are in the middle of negotiating with the Ministry of National Defense of South Korea before this plan is finalized [later] this month,” the official told the Taipei Times.

Taiwan was able to authenticate the information, first disclosed by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun on April 21, after the Taipei Mission in Korea talked to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Although the Korean Mission in Taipei declined to confirm the report when approached for comment, the Korea JoongAng Daily, an English-language publication under the JoongAng Ilbo, reported yesterday in Seoul that the South Korean government had decided to end the personnel exchange program with Taiwan.

The Korea JoongAng Daily said a South Korean military official told the JoongAng Ilbo that military authorities in Seoul and Beijing had agreed to start an exchange program for major-level officers to study at their respective army, navy or air force academies for one year.

The official was quoted as saying that the agreement with China came after South Korea promised to stop its program with Taiwan.

Beijing had strongly insisted that Seoul stop the exchange program with Taiwan, the reports said.

South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin and his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie (梁光烈), will confirm the exchange program in Beijing at the end of this month, as well as the establishment of a military hotline, along with other measures to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries, the newspapers said.

One ROC officer is currently studying in South Korea, while two South Korean officers are in Taiwan, a diplomatic source said.

Sha Tsan-son (沙春生), a retired military attache who had served in Seoul, said ending the ROC-South Korea program was aimed at breaking the “brotherhood that has existed between the Republic of China military and the Gwangbokgun,” the armed forces of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (the 1919 to 1948 government-in-exile in China), since it was established in 1941.

In an interview with the Taipei Times on Tuesday, the retired officer, who took part in the exchange program in the late 1970s, lamented the changes in relations between Taipei and Seoul and those between Beijing and Seoul over the decades.

One main reason Taiwan was able to maintain the program — even after Seoul abruptly broke diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1992, in what was widely regarded in Taiwan as an insulting way — was “the profound relationship between the ROC military and the Gwangbokgun” that dated back to a time when both countries were facing hard times, said the former officer, who retired about 10 years ago.

As China’s clout grew in terms of its economic relationship with South Korea and its influence with North Korea, Taiwan had to reduce the number of officers it sent to Seoul from three when the program began in 1974 to one, said the retiree, who is now president of Taiwan Education Center in South Korea.

“I cannot remember the exact year, but at one point South Korea barred Taiwanese exchange officers from wearing their military uniforms,” he said.

What Taiwan gained from the program was not what its officers learned of military techniques, but “the strong bonds it built between the two countries,” he said.

In the early 2000s, several requests by Beijing that Seoul end the exchange program with Taipei were bluntly turned down by South Korean military leaders, who themselves had studied in Taiwan as part of the program, he said.

A paper published in October by Hwang Jaeho, a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said the exchange program had been an impediment for South Korea in achieving a strategic cooperative partnership with China, a goal his country has been pursuing since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in 2008.