The Army is pushing ahead with a plan to allow master sergeants to lead squads, small military units currently led by second lieutenants, a military source said Friday, amid a growing shortage of entry-level officers.
"The Army is working to appoint master sergeants as heads of squads as part of its reform measures," the source said on condition of anonymity. "From as early as next year, master sergeants who are under the age of 40 will be assigned to lead a squad."
The declining birth rate is gradually slashing the number of entry-level officers as well as draftees, and there is also the need for non-commissioned officers to serve as squad leaders, given their professional experience and knowledge, according to the source.
In South Korea, an Army squad consists of 30 to 40 soldiers and is subordinate to an infantry platoon.
The military had commissioned about 6,900 second lieutenants a year, but the number fell to 5,400 this year due to a shortage of cadets in military academies. The falling fertility rate will further reduce the number to some 5,000 entry-level officers by 2020, according to the source.
Instead, the defense ministry plans to increase the proportion of non-commissioned officers in the military to 26 percent by 2020 from the current 17 percent, officials said.
South Korea has fewer than 1.1 births per woman, one of the world's lowest rates.
South Korea's 655,000-strong military confronts North Korea, which boasts the world's fifth-largest military force of 1.19 million, across its heavily armed border. The Korean Peninsula is still technically at war because the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. (Yonhap News)