South Korea, in light of the recent loss of a warship to a North Korean torpedo (and the North Korean denial of the attack), is spending over $2 billion to (as quickly as possible) obtain anti-submarine helicopters and minesweepers (perhaps helicopters, instead of ships.) The navy had previously asked for money to buy eight anti-submarine helicopters, but the legislature refused to provide the cash. That has changed. Last year, the South Korea defense budget went up 3.6 percent, but the military had called for a 7.9 percent increase. Now it looks like the increase this year will end up being closer to ten percent.
Despite these unanticipated purchases, the South Korea will continue to reorganize its armed forces for a future that might, or might not, include North Korea. This effort has been going on for five years now. The plans include shrinking the size of the armed forces. Three years ago, the plan was to reduce troop strength 26 percent (from 680,000 to 500,000) by 2020. Now, the plan is to do it by 2012.
A falling birth rate is producing fewer young men to conscript, but the booming economy is producing more money, and technology, for more effective weapons and equipment that can replace soldiers. Conscription is increasingly unpopular. The current crop of conscripts have 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 today's voters want to get rid of the draft.
Politicians are responding to this by shrinking service time 25 percent, to 18 months, and assigning more conscripts to jobs in the police or social welfare organizations. 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 that. There are still about 26,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, and these are available for South Korea officers and troops to discuss in detail how an all-volunteer, high tech force works.
The recent North Korean aggression also revealed flaws in the South Korean armed forces. Despite all the technology, it took the navy two days to get search ships to the scene of the sinking. Meanwhile, a fishing ship found the wreckage below, using the fish finding sonar. An all-volunteer force might have responded faster, but the biggest problem here is the quality of the officers. This is another problem that has been hidden for far too long, and is still largely ignored. So has the North Korean preference for taking chances and using lethal mayhem to score political points.