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Safety problems plague reserve force system

Reservist Lee Soo-yul, 28, was subject to reserve forces training on May 18, five days after the deadly shooting that killed three reservists.

“I was nervous,” said Lee. “But I was able to get through the fear thanks to the assistant officers. They gave me one-on-one guidance throughout the training. They brought me a bulletproof jacket and fixed the safety hook. I felt really relieved,” said Lee.

Still, the one-on-one assistance was only implemented by the Defense Ministry after a 23-year-old reservist opened fire at his colleagues and turned the gun on himself during a shooting session on May 13. The rampage left three dead and two wounded, sparking controversy over military safety, as a safety hook was reportedly not fixed properly at the time, allowing the gunman to turn around and shoot those close to him.

Such close monitoring of reservist training was only available at the smaller-scale reservist drill conducted by the Air Force, which mandates that every shooter must be with assistant officers during the shooting drills and the officers must wear bulletproof jackets.

Reservists participate in shooting drills under the guidance of instructors in the 73rd Army division in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 20. The military introduced one-on-one assistance throughout the exercise in the wake of a fatal shooting incident earlier this month. (Yonhap)
Reservists participate in shooting drills under the guidance of instructors in the 73rd Army division in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 20. The military introduced one-on-one assistance throughout the exercise in the wake of a fatal shooting incident earlier this month. (Yonhap)

The reservist training is controlled by the Defense Ministry and each drill is to be conducted in conjunction with the Army, Navy or the Air Force depending on the type of the training.

“I was surprised to hear that the Army does not have the same rules as those in the Air Force,” said 30-year-old Yoon Ki-sang, a reserve Air Force officer who served as a shooting instructor. “I thought the Army would have more solid rules because most shooting guidebooks come from the Army,” said Yoon.

The lack of unified and specific training regulations has spurred recurring debate over the efficacy of Korea’s reserve forces system.

Observers say the reservists are crucial to the national defense, but they hardly undergo proper training to protect themselves and the nation from an attack in the country still technically at war.

Korean reserve forces were established in 1968 by then-President Park Chung-hee, the father of current President Park Geun-hye. Since then, every able-bodied man must serve as a reservist for eight years after completing his mandatory service lasting around two years.

Under the slogan “Fighting while working and working while fighting,” the reserve forces aim to help active duty soldiers in wartime and other national emergencies. For instance, they were mobilized when North Korean armed agents infiltrated the South in late 1968.

But the veneer of the reservist training has left the public and even the reservists themselves to question whether they are up to the task.

It is a common sight here to see a man donned sloppily in his military uniform and wearing the cap backwards walking idly through the street to his training.

“If war broke out, every reservist, including me, would run away,” said a 25-year-old reservist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was attending reserve training at the same place where the shooting incident had occurred a day before.

“I am in the third year of reserve training, but I still don’t know what I am supposed to do in wartime. No one, including the instructors, pay attention to the training. How could I fight the enemy? It is suicidal,” he said.

His was not an isolated case. It is a frequent sight to see reservists carry their cellphone inside the training camp, leave the training zone to take a call or lay their headgear down during breaks ― all of which are forbidden by military regulations.

To motivate them, the military has started operating a “performance-based system” from March this year, allowing the reservists to go home as early as 3 p.m. if they pass the training test.

For instance, a training session would consist of five parts: CPR, individual combat drills, street battle training, the use of gas masks and securing prisoners of war. If a participant completes all five sessions before 6 p.m., they could go home.

“Technically, the training finishes at 6 p.m.,” said a training instructor. “But if you pass the training tests and demonstrate your commitment, we would let you go at 3 p.m. The less cooperative you are, the later you will get home,” an instructor told a group of reservists at a training session held at the 52nd division under Army Capital Defense Command, located in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul on May 14.

Upon orders, the reservists, mostly in their 20s, started to muster their strength and grabbed their gear with minimal enthusiasm. Some audaciously asked instructors to just let them go home early. More clever ones made a deal with instructors’ subordinates at the site to hasten the training, saying “If you let me go early, I will show you a smartphone movie.”

Debate over the efficacy of the reservists program and the lax discipline has often surfaced in the past between progressive politicians, who argue the reserve forces serve little purpose, and conservatives, who cite pending security risks from the North and call for stronger discipline in the training.

Former opposition party leader Chung Dong-young previously ignited debate, pledging to end mandatory training for reservists in his bid in the 2007 presidential election. The now-defunct Unified Progressive Party, dissolved by the Constitutional Court last year for being pro-North, had also vowed to abolish the training in the lead-up to the 2012 election.

Opponents have asserted that the decades-old mandatory training is economically inefficient and politically problematic. They have claimed the reserve forces incur an unnecessary burden on taxpayers by imposing mandatory service on them twice, the first time being active duty and the second as a reservist.

They have also pointed to the dubious origin of reserve forces. They have claimed then-President Park Chung-hee used the reserve forces to instill a sense of security to consolidate his dictatorship.

“I think reservists’ training is a waste of time and money,” said 30-year-old Kim Byung-son, a former Air Force lieutenant who served as an anti-artillery officer. “The military said they were seeking realistic warfare training, but it didn’t appear so,” said Kim.

“What I ended up doing in the reservist training was simply helping army-led military operations. I understand the Army plays a key role on the Korean battlefield, but I felt like my three years of service went down the drain,” Kim added.

The military and conservatives, however, say the reserve forces are vital to the country’s national defense. Faced with North Korea’s massive military capability and a dwindling number of active duty soldiers, they claim the South needs to retain the current system and, if necessary, reinforce it.

“The reserve forces will play a significant role in wartime,” said Yang Uk, senior research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum. “North Korea has about 1.19 million active duty soldiers, but we only have 600 thousand, which will decline to 520 thousand by 2022. Without reinforcement from the reserve forces, we will be outnumbered in wartime,” said Yang.

South Korea has 42 divisions. Among them, only 22 are permanent divisions ― 16 infantry divisions and six mechanized divisions ― consisting mostly of active duty soldiers. The other 20 units ― homeland divisions and mobilized divisions ― would be filled with reserve forces.

Reservists serve as reinforcements to frontline permanent units that would fight the North’s frontline armies, or as a combat unit against the North’s special warfare units in the rear. The North reportedly has 200,000 special warfare personnel.

Another expert said the reserve forces can play a role in the process of the two Koreas’ unification. “If there were war and the South managed to march toward the North, the reserves would conduct stabilization operations to combat insurgents in the North,” said Shin In-kyun, the president of the Korea Defense Network.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Defense prepared a reform plan in 2014 to reinforce the reserve forces. Titled “Basic Plan for the Reform on National Defense (2014-2030),” the initiative aims to make the reserve forces an “elite” unit that can be readily available for combat upon being mobilized.

As parts of the efforts, the ministry decided to beef up mobilized training for the reservists. Earlier this year, the military announced a plan to have college students join mobilized training sessions. In the past, the students were exempt from mandatory mobilization training.

Efforts have also been made recently to bolster safety and discipline. The military began hiring reserve officers to train reservists, having recruited them last year, and placed the first group of officers at training camps May 18. Every reserve officer will be paid 1.6 million won ($1,400) for planning and organizing the reserve training.

Experts, for the time being, have offered mixed responses to the military’s reinforced efforts to improve the efficacy of reserve training.

Welcoming the decision to mobilize college students, Shin In-kyun said, “No one is off the hook when it comes to national defense.”

Employing reserve officers for training reservists, on the other hand, needs improvement, as the officers would face difficulties in giving orders, being that they are no longer in a chain of command.

Yang pointed out that instilling a sense of unity would be the fundamental task.”

“Take the Israeli and U.S. forces as an example. Their reserve forces gather on a regular basis to build rapport and friendship. We should work on building reserve forces that can integrate with and trust each other on the battleground. They should be instilled with a conviction that they are reserved commanders protecting the people,” said Yang.

By Yeo Jun-suk (