South Korea’s Marine Corps, nicknamed “Ghost Busters,” has a worldwide reputation for its combat prowess amid successful operations during the Korean War and in Vietnam.
Despite such fame the service has been domestically recognized merely as a small force affiliated with the Navy.
It has long suffered from a small budget as larger parts of defense spending have been funneled into the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Of the 9-trillion-won spending for this year’s arms improvements, the Marine Corps received just 100 billion won, some 1.2 percent of the total.
Moreover, its main responsibility has apparently shifted from amphibious assault operations to coastal and facility protection and security services, with the shortage of manpower and planned troop reductions.
These problems actually had something to do with the service’s response to North Korea’s unprecedented shelling of a South Korean island near the western sea border last month, defense experts and politicians point out.
“The problem is simple. Without modernization of defense equipment, the Marine Corps just can’t keep its nicknames _ Ghost Busters and Invincible Marine Corps,” said Kim Hyun-ki, a professor at Kyonggi University in Gyeonggi Province.
When the North fired about 170 shells from its coastal artillery toward Yeonpyeong Island Nov. 23, the marine unit there was only able to return fire with 80 shells from three of the six K9 self-propelled howitzers. Three others didn’t work properly, while most other tanks and weapons, which had seen service in the Korean War, were too old to return fire.
Rep. Song Young-sun of the Future Alliance Hope, a minor opposition party, accused the Army-led military of having ignored the marines’ calls for improved weapons on the five islands near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea.
“Under the Defense Reform Plan (DRP) 2020, the troop numbers of the Marine Corps have decreased gradually for the past five years, while the North has beefed up its combat posture near the sea border,” said Song, a former analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA).
“The South can’t neutralize the North’s artillery and multiple rocket launcher sites precisely with only the K9 howitzer,” she said.
Belatedly but fortunately, the military has started boosting personnel and weapons systems for the Marine Corps in the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong attack that killed four South Koreans, including two marines.
Last week, the National Assembly approved an additional spending of 310.5 billion won to acquire weapons to defend the border islands. Among arms improvement programs include the acquisition of GPS-guided precision missiles, production of more K9 howitzers, upgrades of 155mm K55 self-propelled howitzers, and the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles for a naval intelligence ship.
The reduction of marine forces will also be reconsidered, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
Currently, there are 27,000 marines, and 3,800 of them are stationed on the five islands in the West Sea, including Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong Islands, some 15 percent of the total.
Under the DRP 2020, the troop numbers were to be downsized by 3,200 by 2020. The Yeonpyeong unit was to be most affected by the troop cuts.
Last week, a presidential defense reform panel suggested a plan to transform the Marine Corps into a rapid deployment force, according to sources.
Under the plan, the Marine Corps would be transformed into a “national strategic force” capable of landing and infiltration operations. The force would also serve as a rapid strike force in case of war.
The panel will also advise President Lee Myung-bak to create a West Sea command with a troop strength of some 12,000, the sources said.