March 3, 2010:
South Korea is also in the midst of a 15 year plan to transform their army from a large force of conscripts, to a smaller, high tech force containing many more, higher paid, volunteers. The south sees this, the "American approach" as superior and proven. But this will be expensive, because the legislature has stuck by the popular plan to reduce the time conscripts stay in uniform to 18 months. Its currently 21 months (down from 24 months) and will be cut another three months by 2014. That means less time to train soldiers to the high standards commensurate with the flood of high tech weapons and equipment the South Korean armed forces have received in the last two decades. The army also believes that a shorter term for conscripts will induce fewer college students to volunteer to train to be reserve officers. But the big minus is the loss of time for training. Meanwhile, the legislators (and voters) won't provide the money needed to create an all-volunteer force.
Over the last two decades, South Korea has developed, and produced in large numbers, their own versions of the U.S. M-1 tank (the South Korean K-1 and K-2), the U.S. M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle (the South Korean K-21) and the U.S. M-109 self-propelled 155mm howitzer (the South Korean K-9), and much more. The South Korean used the American equipment as models, and then built on that.
South Korea also manufactures an Aegis destroyer (the KDX III class), a new class of frigate (FFK) and a light fighter/trainer jet (the T-50). South Korea offers most of this new gear for export, at a substantial discount to what their U.S. equivalents would cost, and backs them up with the South Korean reputation of producing sturdy and reliable industrial goods (everything from large ships to tiny micro chips). This provides South Korea with a decisive military edge over its aggressive northern neighbor, North Korea.
And that bring up another problem, for last year South Korea made public what many have suspected for several years now. If North Korea attacks, South Korea is prepared to go north and attack, or invade, their neighbor. This is no surprise to those who have been observing the South Korean armed forces development since the end of the Cold War in 1991. During the same time, the North Korean armed forces have declined because of a bankrupt economy and no money for replacing obsolete equipment, or for training. Meanwhile, the booming economy in the south led to the growth of domestic arms industry, and the re-equipping the South Korean military with modern, and locally made, weapons.
The southern generals also believe that the North Korean military is in terminal decline. Over a decade of famine and extreme poverty has caused severe reductions in maintenance and training in the North Korean military. This has sharply lowered the combat capabilities of the northern force. Corruption and poverty has increased corruption and insubordination up north. In response to all that, South Korea staff officers have quietly been drawing up plans on how they would move into the north. This would happen either in response to an attack from the north, or, a collapse of the communist police state government up there.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in South Korea have shrunk to the point where the U.S. no longer commands all forces there (as has been the case since the Korean War). South Korea commanders are taking over, and South Korean staff officers are drawing up new contingency plans.
Still, many South Koreans don't really believe the better trained, led and equipped South Korean forces can defeat another invasion from the north. They expect the Americans to do something spectacular. The American troops have been around for over half a century, and the U.S. has always said it would stand by its South Korean ally. But the numbers tell a different tale. At the end of the Korean War, in 1953, there were over 350,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Within a year, that shrank to 223,000, and by 1955 it was only 85,000. By the mid-60s it was 63,000. By the mid 70's there were only 42,000. There it stayed for over two decades. Then came the September 11, 2001 and the war on terror. By 2004 the U.S. force in South Korea was down to 37,000. In 2006 that dropped to 30,000 and then 28,000. Air power continues to shrink as well, with U.S. warplane strength shrinking to 45 aircraft. There is fear that the U.S. might cut the American force in South Korea to token (a few thousand troops) size. Meanwhile, more Americans are getting quite vocal about the need for any U.S. troops in South Korea at all. Enough is enough, and over half a century of paying to supply South Korea with a protective garrison should come to an end. Meanwhile, most South Koreans believe (if only to themselves), that North Korea will shamble on, or collapse of its own accord, without the need for a major military effort from the south.