South Korean generals are feeling the heat. The two attacks on South Korean troops by North Korea last year (which left fifty dead, two of them civilians) has triggered some fear, and a lot of anger, in South Korea. People are calling North Korea “the enemy” for the first time in decades. For a long time, North Korea was regarded as misguided, and impoverished cousins. No more. Decades of North Korean hostility has destroyed all this good will, and now South Korean are angry. But they are also angry at their own military leadership. The ill-will towards the generals is not just about the South Korean military getting bushwhacked twice in nine months. There’s also resentment towards the fact that South Korean generals ran the country from 1960 to 1993. It was a military dictatorship, often corrupt and brutal, and not popular at all. Democracy returned peacefully in the 1990s, but the previous bad behavior of the generals was not forgotten.
Thus the recent public anger at North Korea, and the South Korean military, has also aimed at what are seen as incompetence, and bad behavior, by the generals as a group. There are only about a thousand active duty and retired generals. One of the more visible flashpoints was the public demand that the generals, especially retired generals, get rid of symbols of their status. This includes government supplied chauffeured cars and, in particular, the metal plates attached to the cars containing the rank of the general (indicated by the number of stars on the plate). Back in the bad old decades of the military dictatorship, those starred plates meant everyone better get out of the way. But many South Koreans believe that too many generals are more concerned with stature than with national defense. It doesn’t help that the head of the army was recently forced to retire because of involvement in a real estate scam.
All this fuss may mean some change in attitudes towards the South Korean generals, who, despite the fall of the military dictatorship, still see themselves as demigods, who can do no wrong, must always be obeyed and must be shown appropriate respect at all times. The generals are not taking this sudden shift in public opinion well, but they no longer have the option of overthrowing the government. Too many powerful forces (not to mention their main allies, the United States and Japan) are against that, not to mention the vast majority of South Koreans, including most of the troops. And the anger is not just about symbols and privileges, but about efficiency and responsibility. The public has lost some confidence in the military because of the two North Korean attacks, and holds the generals responsible.