‘Defense mafia’ creates corruption in all three branches of the military

Posted on : 2015-07-22 17:22 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Analysts say the military’s insular and hierarchical culture lends itself to corruption
 with hull-mounted sonar (HMS) docked in Busan on Nov. 26
with hull-mounted sonar (HMS) docked in Busan on Nov. 26

Numerous cases of defense industry corruption have come to light since the November launch of a joint investigative team on the issue. With the team planning to continue its investigations through the end of 2015, it is still too early to determine how many more cases will be uncovered. But the ones that have emerged to date are already drawing major criticism from the public.

An interim announcement of findings by the team, which is made up of all the administration’s investigative bodies, on July 15, implicated projects totaling 980.9 billion won (US$851 million) in scale. Sixty-three people have been indicted to date, including two former Naval Chiefs of Staff, a onetime Minister of Patriots’ and Veterans’ Affairs, and ten generals or admirals on active duty or in the reserves. The bulk of the projects - totaling 840.2 billion won (US$729 million) - involved the Navy, from the supply of sonar for its Tongyeong and Sohae surface rescue ships to the purchasing of naval helicopters. In the Army’s case, possible corruption is being discussed in connection with supplies of special forces body armor and the K-11 rifle, while the Air Force is under investigation for electronic warfare training system (EWTS) supply irregularities. Evidence of defense industry corruption, which first surfaced after revelations that the Tongyeong could not be deployed for rescue operations due to sonar issues during the April 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, has now spread throughout all three branches of the armed forces.

Defense industry corruption is hardly a new development. In 1993, former Ministers of National Defense Lee Sang-hoon and Lee Jong-gu and other members of the military leadership were arrested in connection with the Yulgok Project scandal. Three years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars were found to have changed hands in connection with a light combat helicopter project involving former Defense Minister Lee Yang-ho. More recently, former Air Force Chief of Staff Kim Sang-tae was arrested in 2011 on charges of acquiring confidential information about Air Force improvements from younger officers and passing them on to overseas defense companies, including Lockheed Martin. A controversial 2013 case involved the forgery of 255 parts testing or analysis results by munitions producers. 

Chronic corruption related to military’s hierarchy and insularity 

Many analysts say the military’s insular, hierarchical culture is largely to blame for the repeated cases of corruption. In particular, they say lower-ranking members find it difficult to refuse orders from superiors in a culture where top-down decision-making is the norm. The 2006 establishment of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) under the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun was intended to target these characteristics of the military organizational structure. After abuses of power surfaced as a major issue in the ’90s - with defense ministers, chiefs of staff, and other high-ranking members of the military leadership involved in the Yulgok scandal - an independent organization that was relatively free from influence at the highest military levels had been tasked with acquisition duties.

The founding of DAPA did produce some results. But the decrease in cases involving abuses of power was offset by an increase in irregularities at the working level, implicating the field officers in charge of practical affairs. The increased authority at this level also resulted in industry lobbying efforts shifting from the higher-ups to the field officers. And with members of the reserves going to work as employees at weapons brokerages, the structure of lobbying younger associates still on active duty remained in place. In the case of the faulty Tongyeong sonar acquisition, prosecutors say a reserve colonel, identified by his surname Kim, parlayed his connection as a former Naval Academy classmate of Chief of Staff Jung Ok-keun into work as a lobbyist for supplier Hackenco.

Also cited as factors are the secrecy and insularity of defense projects themselves. Because they involve military secrets, access to the projects themselves remains limited. Indeed, details about projects that are treated as confidential, including mid-range Ministry of National Defense plans and weapons use plans for the different branches, are a major target for companies hoping to peek inside. The result of this is that the secrets acquire a certain information transaction value.

“This cozy relationship among retired officers, current working-level officials, the purchasing departments of each branch, and the arms industry could well be seen as a kind of ‘military mafia’ or ‘defense mafia’ that results from a monopoly on information,” said Kim Jong-dae, editor-in-chief of the journal Defense 21+.

Meanwhile, the defense security staffers ostensibly in charge of investigating the leaks of military secrets and reviewing security have not been living up to their role. A military officer in charge of defense security related to Ilgwang Gongyeong, which was implicated in the Air Force EWTS acquisition, allegedly provided military secrets in exchange for money - a scenario in which the foxes were left in charge of the henhouse.

DAPA personnel reform causes corruption to trickle down 

The government belatedly took action to address this. In November of last year, the Ministry of National Defense created a task force for reforming acquisition projects. It has also taken steps to enhance monitoring, offering up to 500 million won (US$435,000) in rewards for reporting corruption in defense acquisitions.

Last month, the Ministry selected 18 short- and long-term reform tasks, which included rotating official appointments to increase transparency, professionalism, and efficiency; making more information public; meting out harsher punishments for corrupt officials; and creating a system for selecting defense projects.

In its manager-level promotions at the beginning of this year, DAPA slashed the percentage of team leaders from the Acquisition Management Office who are currently serving in the military from 70% to 50%. In the naval vessel acquisition department - which was the greatest source of controversy in the recent joint investigation -the number of team leaders from the navy fell from six to two out of eight in total, while four public servants and one each from the army and air force were appointed in their place.

This past May, DAPA also proposed a reorganization plan that would reduce the percentage of service members from the current level of 49% to 30% while increasing the percentage of public servants to 70% by 2017. These efforts are aimed at changing the insular culture of the organization to reduce the opportunities for corruption made possible by relationships between junior and senior members of the same branches of the service.

Some members of the military complain about the inefficiency of members of the army and air force working on naval vessel acquisition - a subject about which they know little.

But the DAPA disagrees. “As long as they have experience and expertise with acquisitions in general, there will be few problems with doing the work. In fact, there are lots of chances to take a fresh look at practices that have been uncritically accepted and to improve them,” a source at the agency said.

DAPA still needs to figure out how it will overcome the opposition in the military to the question of disposing of the 300 soldiers who will have to return to each of the services by 2017, according to the agency‘s reorganization plan.


By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer


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