Mandatory military service is a rite of passage for every able-bodied man in South Korea, which technically remains at war with North Korea since the 1953 Korean War armistice. A military made up of volunteers seeking lifetime jobs as career soldiers was once unimaginable, but that has changed.
“Everything -- including plans to shift to an all-volunteer military -- is on the table to restructure our armed forces by 2040,” Defense Minister Suh Wook told a New Year’s press briefing Jan. 27.
Demographic projections suggest that by 2033 Seoul may no longer have sufficient numbers of young men to maintain its 600,000-strong military, two-thirds of which are conscripts serving at least 18 months, according to the Defense Ministry.
North Korea has a standing army twice the size of South Korea’s, with North Korean male conscripts serving at least 10 years.
“It’s clear conscription needs to go,” said Mo Jong-hwa, chief of the Military Manpower Administration, the arm of the Defense Ministry in charge of conscription. He proposed a military in which 70 percent of personnel are volunteers.
“Good pay and job stability will do the trick,” Mo said.
The public seems to favor the change. Six out of 10 South Koreans support a volunteer military because they believe it is unavoidable given the falling birth rate and think professional career soldiers will help mount a better defense, according to a poll that broadcaster KBS conducted on 1,000 South Korean adults in October.
But opponents said volunteers would not be incentivized to seek lifetime military jobs, as they would be financially unrewarding. And conscription is better for coping with the still high levels of inter-Korean hostility, they said.
Critics say the military cannot afford to pay recruits enough to lure them into lifetime service. Even if it did, job seekers would not entertain that idea because many still see the military as the least attractive place, especially for lifetime employment, they argue.
“Look at how much the conscripts are paid. We aren’t ready to cover expenses for volunteers making up 70 percent of the total ‘workforce,’” said Ryu Seong-yeop, an intelligence analyst at the Korea Research Institute for Military Affairs.
An Army private earns $404 a month, about a quarter of this year’s minimum wage in South Korea. That monthly wage is expected to rise slowly over the next few years, but by 2022 will still only amount to half the minimum wage for 2017.
If the military were to fill every role with volunteers, paying the minimum wage for this year -- about $1,800 a month -- it would need a budget at least seven or eight times bigger than it has now, according to data compiled by the government and think tanks.
“Besides, we all know three things cross our minds when we think of the military: dangerous, difficult and dirty,” said Ryu, an Air Force veteran who served as an officer.
Calls to the military’s suicide prevention hotline tripled from 2015 to 2019. In the same period, 3 out of 10 conscripts complained about mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, according to the Defense Ministry’s annual report last year.
Kim Ki-ho, a retired Army colonel, said it was too soon to make such a seismic shift in the recruitment process, when North Korea is beefing up its military capabilities. Leader Kim Jong-un recently vowed to roll out tactical nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles.
“Conventional warfare still matters and manpower counts. We’ll have to deal with the drop in conscripts. But looking at a volunteer military right away seems careless. It’s a wrong signal to everyone,” said Col. Kim, who was once in charge of strategy planning at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Moon Seong-mook, a former one-star Army general who served as chief negotiator at the inter-Korean military talks in 2007, argued that South Korea should think beyond the North Korean threat.
“Even if we see a unified Korea, we still share borders with China and Russia to the north. They are not allies and have a much larger military presence. Are we comfortable with a reduced presence of our own?” Moon asked, saying enlistment rates would be disappointing.
“I’m not saying we put it off the table. But it would be a historic departure. It doesn’t hurt to look before we leap.”
By Choi Si-young (firstname.lastname@example.org