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Debate over voluntary military roils Korea

In 1949, South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee introduced military conscription for the first time upon liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). In 1951, the system, which was suspended in 1950, was reinstated during the Korean War.

Since then, every Korean able-bodied man has been mandated to serve in the military for between 21 and 24 months. In doing so, they constitute the backbone of the armed forces with 640,000 active in duty and 4.3 million as reserve forces.

Now, the mandatory military service is being thrust into the spotlight again as some prominent politicians are questioning whether the system reflects new socioeconomic challenges and proposing to replace it with what they see as more modernized voluntary military service.

Spearheading these voices is Gyeonggi Province Gov. Nam Kyung-pil of the ruling Saenuri Party. The 51-year-old politician, who is also hailed as one of the flag-bearers of the Saenuri Party in advance of the 2016 presidential campaign, said he would adopt the voluntary system if elected president.

“The current mandatory system cannot defend South Korea,” said the governor during a meeting with local reporters Wednesday. “The solution is to create a strong but small military -- something that young people want to join as opposed to being forced to.”
He laid out a series of options for his initiative: a transformation to a voluntary system by 2022; reduction of the total number of armed forces to 300,000; and offering enlisted soldiers monthly payment of 2 million won ($1,800), roughly equivalent to the monthly wages of low-ranking public workers.

His proposal is based on the idea that South Korea’s low birthrate will lead to a shortfall in manpower available for conscription by 2020 -- the year he said Korea would face dramatic declines both in population and consumption.

The Ministry of National Defense expects the number of draftees -- mostly in their 20s -- would be reduced from the current 350,000 to 250,000 by 2020. The number is far below the ministry’s goal to secure 520,000 in personnel in accordance with the military reform plan published in 2014.

Another reason for an end to the draft is the physical and mental abuse prevalent among military units, said Nam. According to data from the Army in 2015, about 1 in 10 candidates were deemed unfit to serve and the number of those who were dishonorably discharged rose from 1,419 in 2013 to 3,328 in 2014. 

“Maintaining more than 500,000 Army conscripts requires even those with physical and mental issues to be sent to the military,” said Nam. “In order to maintain the current level, we have to send all of the draftees with medical conditions to the Army and even extend their service period.”

This is not the first time the idea of a voluntary force has made headlines in South Korea.

In 2012, Rep Kim Doo-kwan of what is now The Minjoo Party of Korea had vowed to cut in half the number of armed forces to 300,000 if he won the 2012 presidential election. But his proposal was immediately rebuked by political circles worried about two Korea’s armistice condition.

Two years later, the issue came to the fore again amid public outrage over the death of a 23-year-old Army private first class, who had suffered from severe assault and abusive treatment at the hands of his comrades in his barracks in 2014.

But the idea has often been dismissed by military officials and security experts as unrealistic.

The Defense Ministry said earlier this year that the government should take a “cautious” approach to a voluntary system and that cutting personnel to 300,000 is “impossible” given the threat posed by North Korea.

“It is too early to discuss a voluntary military,” said Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn when asked by lawmakers Tuesday during the interpellation session. The government maintained it should retain the current level of military personnel in the event of ground warfare with North Korea.

“A mandatory system is still crucial as the two Koreas are still at war,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum. “Ultimately, the war can end only when infantry troops move in and take control of the battlefield.”

He asserted that South Korea must maintain at least 400,000 in armed forces to defend itself against North Korea, which reportedly has a force up to 1.2 million strong -- unless the South has a system in which all able citizens over a certain age can be considered troops and mobilized in a wartime situation, such as countries like Israel.

Some experts said that the government cannot afford a voluntary military whose annual cost could range from 4 trillion to 7 trillion won. And the additional cost, they warned, would divert resources from investing more money in developing high-tech military equipment against North Korea’s nuclear threat.  

Shin In-kyun, the president of the Korea Defense Network, said in a local newspaper the voluntary system would cost as much as 10 trillion won because it includes pay raises for all military personnel, including officers, and improvement to equipment.

He also warned that there is no ample incentive to attract enough soldiers in the nation where military service is still considered a “traumatic” experience for many. “I don’t think the government would recruit even half of what they expect under the monthly salary that is being discussed,” he said.

Such a voluntary system with low incentives would create a situation in which only the children of poor families would end up shouldering the burden of military service while those of rich families would avoid it, said Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the Saenuri Party, who had chaired the parliamentary defense committee.

“From the perspective of justice, it is an intolerable system,” said Yoo during his lecture at a college in Seoul earlier this month. “While maintaining the draft system, we need to recruit more noncommissioned officers and develop more weapons.”

The lawmakers at the National Assembly’s Defense Committee also mostly held skeptical views of the voluntary system. The ruling Saenuri Party and opposition parties alike said that while they acknowledged the need for the system, it is too early to adopt a full-fledged voluntary system.

“A voluntary system is a step in the right direction, but not now,” said Rep. Kim Young-woo of the Saenuri Party, chairman of the defense committee. “South Korea is still technically at war and voluntary military could push the burden onto low-income and ill-educated families.”

Rep. Kim Joong-ro of the People’s Party, a former army general who represents opposition parties on the committee, said the ongoing discussion over the voluntary system amounts to “populism” targeting the 2016 presidential election.

“I understand the need for the voluntary system, but the current development strikes me as populism,” Kim said. “Instead of a voluntary system, the government should prepare for military reform.”

Public opinion remains split over voluntary military service and results varied depending upon pollsters conducting the survey.

A survey conducted by local pollster Realmeter showed on Sep. 8 that 27 percent approved the voluntary system, with about 62 percent opposing the move. Local media outlet Moneytoday’s survey on Sept. 12 showed that some 51 percent approved the step, while about 44 percent opposed it.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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