Leadership: South Korean Teenagers Say No


June 2,2008: South Korea is reorganizing its armed forces, reducing the head count and increasing the use of technology. The military is in the midst of a program to reduce troop strength 26 percent (from 680,000 to 500,000) by 2012. The reasons for all this are many. 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.

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. Conscription is getting more unpopular, and the draftees are becoming less enthusiastic about their service. 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 of the remaining troops can be improved. Today's conscripts are not as tolerant of the shabby military housing, which was always a problem. But most of todays 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.

Politicians are responding to this by shrinking service 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. That's won't happen as long as North Korea has a million man army aimed south.

Despite the continued threat of the North Korean army, South Koreans, especially young ones, are becoming increasingly less enthusiastic about doing their army service. Draft dodging is on the increase, and even within the armed forces, there are fewer volunteers for more challenging jobs, like being a commando. Previously, only NCOs (sergeants) were recruited for army commando units. But that has not been enough of late, so the army is allowing lower ranking troops to volunteer. The marines have long recruited lower ranking troops for commando jobs, and been successful at it. So now the army is following the marine example. But the loss of enthusiasm is disquieting to many South Koreans, especially the older ones who remember the last time the North Korean army came south.

South Korea is increasing its defense spending nearly 20 percent ($8.5 billion) this year. That means a total defense budget of nearly $33 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than twice what was spent ten years ago. While South Korea has been practicing very conciliatory diplomacy towards North Korea, it has also been upgrading its military capabilities. This means the South Korean armed forces have equipment that is often several generations ahead of what is used up north.


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