August 29, 2012:
For most of the last decade South Korea has been trying to come up with a plan to radically shrink its armed forces. The current plan is to reduce military strength from 640,000 to 522,000 over the next ten years. At the same time, the 23,000 strong Marine Corps would increase 22 percent over the same period. The marines are seen as an elite force and particularly good at operating along the coasts, where North Korea plans to carry out all sorts of mischief during the early stages of any future war.
Six years ago the plan was to reduce troop strength 26 percent (from 680,000 to 500,000) by 2020. Then politics and North Korean aggression kept halting the reductions. Meanwhile it became clear that the birth rate was going lower, not increasing, and within a decade there would be a lot fewer young men to conscript. At the same time the booming economy was producing more money, and technology, for more effective weapons and equipment that can replace soldiers. Another key element was that conscription was increasingly unpopular. The current crop of conscripts had parents who were born after the Korean war (1950-53) and only the grandparents (a rapidly shrinking group) remember why the draft is still necessary. Most of todays' voters want to get rid of the draft. But when it comes time to actually make cuts, North Korea manages to change the subject.
Then came 2010, a year in which North Korea sank a South Korean corvette (which they denied, but the torpedo fragments recovered were definitely North Korean) and shelled a South Korean island (the northerners bragged about that). Since then, there has been more opposition to reducing military strength. But conscription is still unpopular and there are simply not enough young men to maintain current strength.
Meanwhile politicians are responding to public opinion and shrinking conscription service. It now varies from 21-24 months depending on the service. More conscripts can now serve in the police or social welfare organizations (for 26-36 months). Eventually, South Korea would like to have an all-volunteer force. But that won't be affordable until the armed forces are down to only a few hundred thousand.
Moreover, it's pretty obvious that, despite increased bellicosity from North Korea, economic decline up there has reduced the combat capability of the North Korean armed forces. Added to that, you have the South Koreans following the example of the U.S. and replacing a lot of troops with technology. South Korea has carefully observed the effectiveness of the American all-volunteer force in Afghanistan and Iraq and are trying to emulate the Americans. There are still about 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, and these are available for South Korean officers and troops to discuss in detail how an all-volunteer, high tech force works. Meanwhile, U.S. forces in South Korea have declined to 28,000. Everyone hopes that the dictatorship in the north collapses and the million man army there can be largely demobilized. Northern conscripts serve for six years. If such a demobilization could take place, it would be the first time there were less than a million troops in Korea in over 60 years.