Attrition: Born To Run From South Korea

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October 13, 2015: In South Korea there’s been yet another scandal involving young men avoiding mandatory military service. This time it has to do with a growing number of South Koreans giving up their citizenship. Someone did the math and realized that in 2014 over 4,000 South Korea young men gave up citizenship, and any obligation to serve in the South Korea military. It was estimated that since 2010 over 16,000 young men had used this method to evade military service. The number of young men using this dodge is on the increase. Someone else also did some math and discovered the older methods of draft dodging had been around for a long time, as nearly ten percent of senior elected officials (who were eligible for the draft in the 1990s or earlier) had evaded military service one way or another. It was also noted that young men from affluent families had similar rates of evading service.

There are a growing number of reasons for South Korea men not wanting to serve in the military. Some resonate with young men in all industrialized countries. For example, since 2011 soldiers have had a growing number of restrictions placed on their use of the Internet, be it from cell phone or a PC. Such restrictions had existed before 2011 but starting that year the army set up a monitoring system. In the first year of use the monitoring system identified about a thousand troops violating the rules and 300 were punished. After that the troops were more careful but the monitoring hurt morale among South Korean troops. This was just another of many reasons for low morale. These new Internet rules were especially tough for South Korean troops. That's because South Korea is the most wired nation on the planet, with most households possessing high-speed Internet connections. Young men of military age typically have smart phones as well. Troops are forbidden to have cell phones or digital cameras with them while on duty, but this is also difficult to police. But there are other complications.

The basic problem is that South Korea still drafts (conscripts) most of its soldiers, and the young men involved are increasingly unhappy with this involuntary servitude, low pay and many rules, like those limiting their Internet access. While the 2010 attacks by North Korea made this military service more admirable, the draftees are still unhappy and the draft dodging continues to grow.

Another major reason for evading service is the fact that conscript soldiers are paid practically nothing, compared to conscripts in other countries. This first became an issue in 2011 when the actual pay was about $81 a month (it is now $121). It was heavily publicized that conscripts in nearby Taiwan got four times as much, and conscripts in Germany (who only serve six months), got about eleven times more than their South Korean counterparts. The minimum wage in South Korea is about four dollars an hour. South Korean troops work about 200 hours a month during much of their 21 months of involuntary service. South Korean conscripts are well educated, and can do the math. Unfortunately, when politicians try to raise conscript pay to what Taiwanese draftees get, which would cost the taxpayers another $2.5 billion, the political support just isn't there.

Surveys indicate that most voters believe the troops should be paid more. This is partly because over 40 percent of conscripts depend on money from home to help them get through the month. These are young guys, most of them right out of high school, and like their counterparts in other industrialized countries, have certain necessary expenses. A beer now and then, or some food treats and use of the local Internet café are great for morale. The $121 a month they get from the army doesn't cover it. There is a growing morale problem because of this, especially now that the North Koreans have demonstrated a growing willingness, and ability, to kill young South Korean conscripts.

Politicians have to respond, because all these young men, and their families, can vote. One response has been to reduce the size of the armed forces. In 2008 the plan was to reduce troop strength 26 percent (from 680,000 to 500,000) by 2020. In 2010 the plan was revised to get it done by 2012. The reasons for this are not just political. A falling birth rate is producing fewer young men to conscript, but the booming economy is producing more money, and technology, for more effective weapons and equipment that can replace soldiers. Conscription is increasingly unpopular. The current crop of conscripts have parents who were born after the Korean War (1950-53), and only the grandparents (a rapidly shrinking group) remember why the draft is still necessary. Most of today's voters want to get rid of the draft.

Politicians are responding to this by shrinking conscript service time 25 percent, to 18 months, and assigning more conscripts to jobs in the police or social welfare organizations. Eventually, South Korea would like to have an all-volunteer force. But that won't be affordable until the armed forces are down to only a few hundred thousand. Despite the increased North Korean threat, there's not a lot of popular support for increasing military manpower.

What do the generals think of all this? Some of the generals want a smaller army so they can professionalize it, with a goal of having an all-volunteer force. Another faction of the generals believe a larger army is needed to help deal with a collapse of the North Korean government. They expect a lot of unrest in the north if things fall apart. Other generals believe the reserves could be mobilized for this, and the active force should be cut so living conditions, and pay, of the remaining troops can be improved. Today's conscripts are not as tolerant of the shabby military housing, which was always a problem. Most of today's teenagers grew up in modern housing, and the culture shock of living in some of those ancient barracks is hard to take. Finally, all generals fear a reduction in army size because that will mean a lot less jobs for generals. Meanwhile more potential conscripts are finding their own solutions to the unwanted military servitude.

 

 


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