Debate on military service period heats up
Here is some bad news for young men in Korea. The government is seriously thinking of reversing the mandatory conscription period back to 24 months amid fears over declining military manpower within the next decade.
A personnel shortage in the military will be evident in coming years due to the country’s declining birth rates and the planned troop reductions under the Defense Reform Plan (DRP) 2020.
Defense officials and experts say, in that context, readjusting the duration of the military service is inevitable for strengthening national defense. What will be required is the political will to bring about that change despite a public backlash.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a renowned U.S. defense think tank, cited several reasons that the Korean conscription period should be put back on its original track. Bennett is known to have long researched the DRP 2020 and manpower structure in the Korean military.
“ROK birth rates have fallen seriously since the 1970s. As a result, while 400,000 or more young ROK men turned conscription age each year from 1977 to 2002, except for 1997 and 1998, by 2008 only 318,000 turned conscription age,” the researcher said in an e-mail interview.
“This reduction in the pool of young men has meant that the ROK military has been decreasing in size. More seriously, these reductions will continue in the future after a rebound around 2014,” he said.
In particular, the Korean Statistical Information System (KOSIS) says that 312,000 young men will turn conscription age in 2020, 223,000 in 2025, and 215,000 in 2030.
This age group reduction from 400,000 to 312,000 could gradually cut the size of the ROK military by 22 percent, affecting the number of available officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), as well as the number of conscripts, Bennett said.
By 2035, the fact is that the conscription age group will total less than 200,000, half the 1977 to 2002 levels.
“Because the ROK military is primarily made up of conscripts and almost all men are drafted, the reduction in these age groups means that the size of the ROK military will decline,” he said.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun initially reduced the Army conscription period from 26 to 24 months, and then set in motion another reduction to 18 months by 2014. It was also decided that the service periods for the Navy and Air Force would be shortened by six months to 20 and 21 months, respectively, on an incremental basis.
The rationale behind the policy, dubbed “Vision 2030, 2+5,” was that young people, in particular first-time job seekers, should enter the labor market two years earlier and the retirement age should be extended by five years.
The Roh government believed such a move would maximize the use of manpower as the population ages and the birthrates remain low. But the liberal administration overlooked or downplayed the seriousness of North Korean threats as well as potential budget shortfalls.
“Reducing the conscription period from 26 to 18 months could cut the number of the ROK conscripts by 31 percent, or the overall size of the ROK military by about 24 percent since it would not affect the number of officers or NCOs,” Bennett continued. “These reductions would be on top of the age group reductions. The total impact could be to reduce the size of the ROK military by 40 percent in 2020.”
Rep. Song Young-sun of the minor opposition Future Hope Alliance called a 24-month conscription program “scientific and reasonable.”
“What the military wants is not just a headcount, but rather more trained, professional troops,” said Song, a member of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee.
It takes at least nine months to train infantry troops, and about 11 to 17 months for artillery gunners, 15 to 21 months for mechanized troops, she said.
The military should maintain a 50 percent ratio of trained soldiers at all times, so that it can keep its combat capability at a proper level, said the lawmaker.
“With the current conscription periods of 18, 20 and 21 months, the military is not able to maintain trained soldiers,” she noted.
To fill the potential manpower gap, Bennett said, the military should push ahead with increasing its number of officers and NCOs to 40 percent under the DRP 2020.
He also said the transfer of conscripts to the National Police and other organizations should be terminated given that there is no longer a surplus of conscripts compared to during the 1990s and early-2000s.
The Ministry of National Defense is also reconsidering the planned troop reductions under the defense reform plan. The military is expected to need a larger number of servicemen.
Under the revision blueprint DRP 2020, the strength of ROK armed forces was originally to be downsized from 690,000 to 500,000 by 2020. The target number was raised last year to 517,000 in the face of the lingering North Korean threat, but defense authorities believe more will be necessary.
Against that backdrop, a presidential ad hoc panel recommended to President Lee Myung-bak earlier this month that the troop cuts should be cancelled.
“The troop reduction should not be implemented hastily by fixing a target year,” Lee Sung-chool, a former deputy commander of the Combined Forces Command, said. Lee is a member of the 15-member Presidential Commission on National Security Review.
“Even though the target of 517,000 soldiers is proper, the reduction will take place flexibly in tandem with security conditions on the peninsula,” he said.
Most experts feel that a collapse of the North Korean regime is a more likely future contingency for the ROK military on top of the defense against a North Korean invasion.
The challenge of a collapse scenario is that the military gains less value from advanced technology in such a case and instead has a greater need for manpower, Bennett said.
“Thinking practically, would an Army of even 520,000 personnel today be adequate to intervene in North Korea to demilitarize 1.2 million North Korean active duty military personnel and 7.7 million reservists? Could it then stabilize the North, make sure humanitarian aid is distributed, and establish personal security?
“Yes, the ROK reserve forces would be able to help, but how well organized and trained are they? And yes, some U.S. forces would be able to assist as part of our alliance, but how many U.S. ground forces would be available within a month or two given the current U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan?” Bennett asked. “And wouldn’t U.S. ground forces be more focused on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, given the threat these weapons would pose to the United States and even the ROK?”
In 2020, with an 18 month conscription period in effect, the ROK Army is projected to consist of just less than 390,000 active duty personnel. With a 24 month conscription period, that number could be around 500,000.
“If North Korea continues as an unstable, failing state, with which force would the ROK be more secure?” inquired the expert.
Under the DRP 2020, the government promised to provide extra funding for the military to purchase advanced technology weapons and other systems to make up for its declining manpower.
It proposed an overall funding of 621 trillion won from 2006 through 2020, with roughly 75 trillion won planned to purchase advanced technologies in a tradeoff with personnel.
Unfortunately, the ROK military budget has never received the budget increases promised in the Defense Reform Plan 2020, with the biggest shortfall in 2010 because of global financial concerns.
군 복무 24개월 환원 추진
한국의 청년들에겐 불행한 소식일지 모른다. 정부가 군 의무 복무 기간을 24개월로 환원하는 안을 심각하게 검토 하고 있기 때문이다.
점차 낮아지는 출산률과 국방개혁2020안의 병력감축안을 감안했을때 군 병력 부족 문제가 몇년 후에 가시화 될 것이란 사실은 분명해 보인다.
이런 점에서 국가 안보를 위해서 전문가들은 군복무 기간을 재조정 하는 것은 불가피 하다는 입장이다. 중요한 것은 대중적 반발을 감수 할 수 있는 정치적 의지라는 중론이다.
미국 랜드 연구소의 브루스 베넷 박사는 한국의 군복무 기간 재조정의 타당성을 설명했다.
그는 “한국의 출산율은 1970년대 이후로 심각하게 저하되어 왔다”며 “결과적으로 40만 이상의 한국 남성들이 1977년과 2002년 사이에 징집 대상이 되었고 2008년에는 이 수치가 31만8천으로 급격히 줄었다”고 설명했다.
베넷 박사는 “이런 청년 징집 대사자들의 숫자 감소는 결국 대한민국 군의 규모 축소를 의미한다”며 “더욱 심각한 것은 이런 감소추세가 2014년 이후 더욱 심화 될 것이라는 것이다”라고 말했다.