The Moon Jae-in government announced its plan to shorten conscripted soldiers’ mandatory military service to 18 months from the current 21. The three-month cut was also one of his presidential election pledges. The reduction in the service period has continued to occur since it originally started off with 36 months. As a matter of fact, 18 months is not a new number. During President Roh Moo-hyun’s years, the government strove to reduce the period to 18 months, though it halted to the current 21 months due to strong opposition. Now, the cut is gearing up again, starting with the soldiers recruited after October, 2016. The period will be shortened sequentially, by one day for every two weeks accumulated until it reaches the Army’s target of a three-month cut in 2020. As for the Navy and the Air Force, it will be reduced to 20 months and 21 months respectively. As the plan is indeed a sensitive issue and directly related to security of the Korean Peninsula, controversy is still brewing over the matter. Let’s take a closer look at the opinions of the two different sides.
President Moon is currently keeping his election pledges to lessen the duration of mandatory military service. Applied to soldiers recruited after October, 2016, the length of service will gradually be decreased to 18 months for those who enter the Army in 2020. The issue related to military force, especially regarding the shortening of military service, has always been a hot potato in our society. No surprise that the current proposal is also a center of controversy. One of the biggest concerns over the matter for the opposing side would be the weakening of military power due to the reduced number of troops. They say that if the 18-month plan is carried out, the number of soldiers would be sharply reduced to 120,000. However, it is harder not to raise question as to whether military power is directly proportionate to its number. Also, shouldn't we pay attention to the positive effects that the cut will bring?
First of all, the security paradigm for war has changed compared to the past. If a war breaks out, it would not be a raid carried out by soldiers with rows of tank, like what happened in the Korean War. Even so, the current military force can detect North Korea's military movements in real time. In addition, South Korea is equipped with advanced precision weapons specialized for remote attacks, a form of combat where the number of troops does not come first. Nowadays, military power is not directly proportionate to its number. Times have changed. The key to military strength lies in how equipped a country is with high-tech, technology-intensive weapons and the strategy to maximize its capacity. Rather than merely criticizing the shortenings of the service period by citing the reduced number of troops, it is time to focus on chasing after the new paradigm of war operating with various advanced weapons.
Second, the cut could provide a plausible solution in this demographic era, due to a low birthrate and an aging society. The biggest problem is the rapid decline in the “economically active population,” referring to people who are capable of supplying labor for the production of economic goods and services. Under such conditions, long-term compulsory military service would further reduce the overall economic vitality as fewer economically active population would be out in society. In the end, it will lead to a difficulty in securing costs for maintaining a stable defense. On the other hand, shorter military service means a shorter severance in the social lives of young men. According to a spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defense, when three-month cut is applied, period taken for men discharged from the service to enter society is estimated to decrease by six months to one year. A more economically active population on site will certainly result in a virtuous circle for the whole society.
Third, the reduction will contribute to the improvement in welfare in the army. Most of all, it will allow the salary of military personnel to be nearly doubled. For example, according to the data estimated by the Ministry of Personnel Management, the salary of a sergeant is expected to reach 50 percent of minimum wage (676,700 won) by 2022, compared to the current 30 percent (405,700 won). The increase will help boost soldier’s morale and can partly cover up their financial problems. Also the reduction in the total number of soldiers due to shorter military service periods has positive spin-offs. It can pave the way for a more efficient and modernized military facility, including soldiers’ accommodations, without increasing the defense costs. Although military service is mandatory for young men in Korea, we should not take their sacrifice for granted. Welfare such as wage increase and improvement in facilities is a notable positive effect brought by the cut.
South and North Korea are still in a state of truce. Without doubt, security is very important. However, as many years have passed, the nature of warfare has evolved and the situation in South Korea has also changed. The paradigm in warfare has shifted to placing more emphasis on high-tech strategy rather than on the number of troops. We need to stop playing games with numbers. How can Korea cope with this demographic cliff era and its economic recession? The government is on the right track to ease the burden of young men and contrive better ways to improve the military system. Now is the time for a change in our military service. A shorter military service period is a step in the right direction. < 저작권자 © 중앙헤럴드 무단전재 및 재배포금지 >