EVER SINCE he ran as a presidential candidate, President Moon Jae-in has pledged that he will reduce the military system period. His statement has received many applauds among Korean males in their twenties. Finally, now as a president, he kept his words when he recently renewed his call on cutting military service period from 21 months to 18 months. This new policy certainly delivers as a delightful announcement for soon-to-be enlisted Korean males.
In a macroeconomic point of view, a reduction in military service signifies increase in males who will advance early into society. Hence, the advocates state it will increase economic workforce in the nation, which results in economic growth.
Yet at the same time, critics raised their voices that government should be more cautious on stipulating this new policy. Critics claim that a reduction in military period brings a concern over a lack of young draftees especially during a time of rising military threat by North Korea.
Idea behind cutting military service period
In a nutshell, Moon plans to reduce the military service period for two reasons: Enhancing the military quality and expanding the economic workforce.
From the beginning of his term, President Moon said he will reform the military to build a robust national defense capability. Moon plans to achieve this by recruiting more career military officers and reduce the number of armed forces from 620,000 to 500,000, by shortening the military service period from 21 months to 18 months. He added that hiring professional workforce for the army while reducing the number of conscripted soldiers will contribute to a more elite army.
Furthermore, this policy will allow young men to enter the society earlier and contribute to the national economy. If they serve shorter years in the army, they will be granted more working years. According to the president, this leads to an increase in the size of workforce population, and thus vitalizes the economic circulation throughout the nation.
Voices of advocates: developing modernized force and expanding economic workforce
In an era of advanced military technology, the army has become a more specialized force with less importance in its size. According to *The Korea Herald*, Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights, emphasized that it is more significant to enhance the quality of the army, not the quantity of soldiers. Hence, he suggested that recruiting more non-commissioned officers with expertise is an appropriate way to foster the military into a more developed one.
Not only that, Korea needs an economic boost as the birthrate is dropping and the size of workforce is continuously shrinking. Kim Jae-woo (Soph., Dept. of Economics), who was enlisted in 2015 as a Gwang-Ju Police Agency, believes reduction in military service period will have positive influences on the country’s economy. “If the service period is cut by three months, male college students could graduate one semester earlier and therefore advance into society quicker. If there is an increase in the number of males who get employed earlier, the number of working people will gradually increase too. Students could also spend these 3 months on ruminating on their future career path or doing internship and other extracurricular activities. Then this will help our youths build better future for themselves, which consequently will enhance the economic productivity,” he said.
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Moreover, the government’s attempt to increase the number of professional officer is not only a way to enhance the military quality but also a form of job creation in the market. “As government expands the officer-class military, it encourages more people to become military officers for their career,” said Jun Woong (Instructor, Dept. of Political Science and Int. Studies). “Recruiting more military officers will eventually benefit our economy by creating more jobs.”
Voices of disagreement: facing the escalating threat from North
Nonetheless, critics argue that such policy undermines the nation’s military capability to retaliate against North’s hostile behavior. According to *The Korea Herald*, Yang Uk (Senior Researcher, Korea Defense Forum) said that three months of reduction in the military period will cause a loss of 55 thousand—or 10% reduction of—soldiers from the current army. As a result, South Korea will not have sufficient number of soldiers to combat against the North. “In the worst case, if war breaks out, one South Korean soldier must fight against two or more North Korean soldiers,” said Yang. He added that even though it is important to develop an army into a more qualified one, number of armed forces still matters in real war.
Others criticize that the length of military training, which is 18 months, is insufficient for the conscripted soldiers to fully acquire combat skills. Research from Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) has revealed that it takes 16 months for infantries to acquire adequate war skills, and 21 months for tank drivers. In reality though, only 10-20% of the conscripted soldiers are prepared for the combat. Based on this information, Yang Uk stated in his interview with *BBS News* that reducing military service period will leave South Korea with even fewer numbers of soldiers who are ready for the combat in case of war.
Professor Jun emphasized that the South and the North are currently in an intense confrontational situation. Therefore, South Korea must maintain a high level of military strength and capability. He urged that President Moon’s scheme on reducing the military period denigrates the country’s military capability and strength. According to him, in a long term, military service cut will deteriorate the military strength even further because the population will continue to decrease with the current low birth rate. “Even though President Moon was firm to maintain the number of troops in five hundred thousand, the number of soldiers is likely to be four hundred forty thousand by 2023, which is not an ideal number of soldiers we want if the war breaks out,” he said.
National security must be taken into account
Military service is Korea’s one of four constitutional duties along with going to work, paying taxes, and getting an education. Hence, a minute modification on military service regulation brings an enormous leverage throughout the Korean male population. According to *The Korea Herald*, Moon Sang-gyun, defense ministry spokesman, emphasized that issue regarding on reducing the military service must be comprehensively examined because this directly influences national security system.
Eric Lee (Jr., UIC, International Studies) said that the government must come up with a way to compensate for the fewer number of soldiers. For instance, the government should put effort on enhancing the quality of military weapons and technology.
Professor Jun believes that even though Korean men have eagerly asked for the reduced military service period for past years, it could bring instability to the Korean army. Rather than merely reducing the service period, the government should concentrate on improving the working environment in the military. By doing so, the conscripted soldiers will be better prepared for possible war without feeling like they have wasted their time.
He added that President Moon should consider precautiously before he puts his pledges into action. “Before executing this policy, the government should, for instance, hold public hearings to convene various public opinions. It then could reflect upon these public’s opinions and make further changes to carry out the policy at its best,” he said.
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While it is difficult to conclude what’s more important, economy or security, we can at least try to balance out the two. In order to do so, the Moon government should conduct a more in-depth research to support its decision and convince the public.