When Korean men get together after some bottles of soju, ‘military service’ is always brought up as a discussion topic. It is something that stimulates both the interest and affection of every Korean man. Therefore, a change in the military policy often creates a lot of controversies.
Recently, the government announced that the period of conscription in South Korea's mandatory military service will be gradually shortened to 18 months from the current 21 months for the Army and the Marine Corps. The Navyʼs period of service will decrease to 20 months from the current 23 months, and the Air Force's service time will be reduced to 21 months from 24 months.
As enticing as this may sound to soldiers, many are worried about this policy. The opposition has pointed out that there are not enough countermeasures that could minimize the possible side effects of this policy.
Mandatory Military Service All Around the World
At first, Korean men were required to serve in the military for about 36 months. This period was shortened to 24 months in 2003 and was once again shortened to 21 months in 2011. However, considering the service period of 75 other countries that require their citizens to participate in mandatory military services, even the 21 month period is significantly long. To explain in detail, Taiwan, a country that is constantly in a national conflict with China, only requires their citizens to go through a four month military service.
A long mandatory military service period does not necessarily mean that the country’s military is strong. In fact, Germany and Italy’s militaries continued to rank among the top ten military powers announced by Global Fire Power with only requiring their citizens to go through approximately ten months of military service period.
Koreans should understand the fact that their mandatory military service period is significant, but is unnecessarily long compared to that of other countries. A careful observation of the examples from other nations clarifies that it is possible to maintain a highly efficient and strong military without requiring the younger generation to participate in military duties for over 20 months.
The Necessity and Its Side Effects of Shortening the Mandatory Military Service Period
According to the National Statistical Office, the proportion of the working population in comparison to the total population will drop from 50 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2030. In other words, there will be more people to take care of compared to those who are able to financially support themselves. Many economic experts therefore believe that it is necessary to shorten the mandatory military service period because this allows Korean men to participate in economic activities much earlier.
In addition, it is now more important to train military personnel and develop advanced weapons than to increase the mere number of troops in modern warfare. “If you observe the way the United States carried out their wars after the Cold War: the Gulf War, the Afghan War, the Kosovo War, and the Iraq War, it is true to say that having advanced weapons and technology is much more important than increasing the number of trained soldiers,” said Professor Kim Jong-ha from the Department of Defense of Hannam University.
However, considering the fact that war is still present in the Korean Peninsula, many side effects will follow with the shortened service period. Once shortened, many soldiers will finish their mandatory military services with a decreased training period as a Sergeant, and the number of troops will drop from 620,000 to 500,000. The number of troops is expected to continue to drop due to Korea’s low birth rate. Even though it does not help much to have a huge number of troops, the Korean army still needs a sustainable number of soldiers to efficiently accomplish missions. “The number of troops is especially important in mountainous terrain areas. In addition, they would be able to carry out various tasks systematically, and would manage humanitarian support for the people of North Korea if a war broke out,” said Professor Kim.
Also, many experts are worried that since many people will finish their mandatory military service with a decreased training period as a Sergeant, there will be a lack of expertise in the army. “According to the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), at least 11 to 13 months of military training will be required for soldiers to perform basic missions, and 15 to 16 months will be required for them to perform missions skillfully. If the mandatory military service period is shortened to 18 months, they will be discharged just when they start doing the job properly,” said Cho Jung-hyun, a Professor of the Department of Convergence Defense in Hanyang University (HYU).
The Solution to the Side Effects
In response to reducing the mandatory military service period, the military budget should be expanded. With better facilities and equipment, it is expected that the period to properly train military troops will decrease significantly, thus preventing the weakening of the army. “When I was in the army, it was difficult for me to train in the winter because the winter boots they gave me were all worn out,” said Kim Min-joo, a Sophomore majoring in the Department of Sports Industry.
The budget that is needed to increase military equipment and secure the troop mobilization system rapidly in order to minimize the side effects is estimated to be more than 3 percent of Korea’s GDP. “Currently, our defense budget is 2.45 percent of our GDP, but the current government has pledged to guarantee up to 2.9 percent increase in our GDP as our military budget. If this promise is seen through, the government will be able to efficiently minimize the side effects,” said Professor Cho.
In the long run, the number of military officers will be reduced to 40,000~50,000, and the number of military non-commissioned officers will increase to 120,000~160,000. The decrease of military officers with the increase of non-commissioned officers will relieve the defense budget. This is because it is estimated that, with the budget of taking care of one military officer, the army will be able to feed and train three non-commissioned officers. “If the current government wants to shorten the service period to 18 months, it is important to increase the number of noncommissioned military officers to about 160,000 or more. This is because we still need a sufficient number of troops to efficiently perform military missions,” said Professor Cho.
The Reality Korea Faces Now
Korea is the only divided nation in the world. Therefore, shortening the military service period is a very sensitive and important issue. It may be necessary to shorten the military service period to keep pace with the world situation and Koreaʼs economic trends. Yet, irresponsibly shortening the time based on populism can cause serious damage to national defense.
Therefore, much attention and several discussions are needed for the most effective implementation of the military service shortening policy. “The national security problem is not a subject of academic discussion or a simple trial, but a very strict and realistic problem on which all of our lives depend,” said Professor Cho. Only with a policy that can cover diverse side effects will it be a success.