South Korea is increasing its defense spending nearly five percent in 2015 to $33.4 billion. That’s more than triple what it was back in 2000. In part this is because of the continuing growth of the South Korean economy but also the result of the continued, and increasingly violent, threat from North Korea and the growing aggressiveness of China. In addition there is continued popular pressure in South Korea to eliminate conscription and move to an all-volunteer force. All this is expensive.
North Korea got more violent in 2010 and in 2011 and that caused South Korea to halt projects designed to make their navy a high seas force, as well as air force efforts to acquire aerial refueling and other capabilities allowing for very long range operations. This process began in 2010 when, in light of the then recent loss of a warship to a North Korean torpedo (and the North Korean denial of the attack), South Korea decided to spend over $2 billion to (as quickly as possible) to obtain anti-submarine helicopters and minesweepers. The navy had previously asked for money to buy eight anti-submarine helicopters, but the legislature refused to provide the cash. That changed after the North Korean attack. In 2008, the South Korean defense budget went up 3.6 percent, but the military had called for a 7.9 percent increase. After the North Korean torpedo attack, and the shelling of a South Korean island later in 2010, the annual increase ended up closer to ten percent and the annual increases remain higher than before 2010.
In 2010, despite the unanticipated purchases, South Korea continued to reorganize its armed forces for a future that might, or might not, include North Korea. This effort had already been going on for five years. It included shrinking 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.
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.
Moreover, it's pretty obvious that, despite increased bellicosity from North Korea, economic decline up there has reduced the combat capability of the North Korean armed forces. Added to that, you have the South Koreans following the example of the U.S., and replacing a lot of troops with technology. South Korea has carefully observed the effectiveness of the American all-volunteer force in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are trying to emulate that. There are still about 26,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, and these are available for South Korea officers and troops to discuss in detail how an all-volunteer, high tech force works.
The 2010 North Korean aggression also revealed flaws in the South Korean armed forces. Despite all the technology, it took the navy two days to get search ships to the scene of the sinking. Meanwhile, a fishing ship found the wreckage below, using the fish finding sonar. An all-volunteer force might have responded faster, but the biggest problem here is the quality of the officers. This is another problem that has been hidden for far too long, and is still largely ignored. So has the North Korean preference for taking chances and using lethal mayhem to score political points. The North Korean violence forced South Koreans to pay attention to these problems.
So money is being diverted to projects that will make the military more effective in dealing what whatever new nastiness the North Koreans might come up with. That means new sensors for detecting submarines, and more anti-missile systems. There is more training for civil defense workers and those assigned the task of dealing with North Korean commandos landing far south of the North Korean border.