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Debate brews over Moon’s plan to cut mandatory military service

President Moon Jae-in’s plan to reduce conscripted soldiers’ mandatory military service sparked debate Thursday, amid growing concerns over a shortage of young draftees and North Korea’s escalating military threat.

The government says the measure is part of a bigger plan to transform the Army into a more modernized force based on career military officers, but critics warn that it runs the risk of undermining the country’s fundamental military capability, if confronted by the 1.2 million-strong North Korean Army. The two Koreas are still technically at war.

President Moon on Wednesday unveiled a five-year plan to scale back the mandatory military service period to 18 months from the current 21, along with a separate scheme to reduce the number of armed forces to about 500,000 from 620,000. 

“Under the proposed reduction scheme, one South Korean solider is to fight against two or more North Korean soldiers during war,” said Yang Uk, a senior researcher at the Seoul-based think tank Korea Defense Forum.

The truce village of Panmunjom. Yonhap
The truce village of Panmunjom. Yonhap

Currently, every Korean able-bodied man is mandated to serve in the military for 21 months for the Army, 23 months for the Navy and 24 months for the Air Force. The draftees can also choose to serve in the police for 21 months and the fire department for 23 months.

The three-month cut would have wide ramifications for South Korea’s defense against the belligerent North, as the conscriptable population is already shrinking, critics said.

According to a projection by the military, the number of new draftees -- mostly in their 20s -- would fall from the current 350,000 to 250,000 by 2022, the final year of Moon’s presidency and the five-year plan.

A study by the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analysis shows that if the military service period is reduced by a month, the number of soldiers available for combat would decline by 10,000. A three-month reduction would lead to a shortage of about 33,000, the agency said.

Some officials are worried that an 18-month service period would be too short for soldiers to master war training.

“Apart from for the training period at boot camp, the soldiers would need at least nine months to be familiar with war skills. Under the current 21-month service period, only 10-20 percent of conscripts are considered to be fully combat-ready,” said an Army officer, who declined to reveal his identity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Proponents argue that streamlining the military with the shorter service period is a “step in the right direction.”

“We need to stop playing games with numbers,” said Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea. “We can recruit more noncommissioned officers with expertise and transform the reserve forces into a more developed, qualified one.”

Reducing the number of those enlisted and their service period was an election pledge of Moon, who led a similar scheme when he served as chief of staff for late President Roh Moo-hyun. The plan was scrapped under the tenure of conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

Yang of the Korea Defense Forum stressed that although the Army needs to be transformed and modernized, the number of armed forces still matters even in modern warfare.

When the Iraq War broke out in 2003, “the US said they would win the war within months, but they were forced to withdraw due to the conflict on the ground. … Technology can play a big role in deterring war, but during actual warfare, the number of troops still matters,” he said. 

By Yeo Jun-suk (