Many South Koreans, both in and out of the military are concerned about the corrosive effect conscription is having on the military, especially the army. Over the last decade there have been a growing number of incidents of sloppiness and erratic behavior in the military. This is a serious matter because North Korea was always expected to use surprise and subterfuge to make up for the advantages South Korea has in terms of more modern equipment and enough money to allow the troops to practice a lot with all those new armored vehicles, aircraft and ships. Then it was noted that this year the Inmun Gun (North Korean army) spent a lot of their training time on practicing surprise attacks, ambushes and sneaking up on the enemy. The North Koreans cannot afford to keep their ancient armored vehicles well maintained much less allow the troops to use them a lot for training. But most of the Inmun Gun are infantry and they have plenty of assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, RPGs and mines. The infantry can train hard without lots of fuel and spare parts.
The North Koreans have frequently shown, usually via some of their soldiers quietly making their way through the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) and showing up at a South Korea outpost seeking to defect, that they can get across this well-guarded barrier. North Korean troops have also done this as part of their training or to get spies or other agents into South Korea. On paper South Korea troops are equipped and trained to prevent this, but often inattention and other forms of sloppiness and poor discipline negate those defenses and allow North Koreans to walk right in. While the air force tends to stay alert and effective, even the navy has had some serious lapses and embarrassments. All this makes more South Koreans inclined to support efforts to end conscription and go with an all-volunteer force.
Meanwhile the Inmun Gun has its own problems. While nearly every adult male serves at least five years in the military up there the big problem is that years of economic problems and failed harvests have left the troops poorly equipped, often hungry and increasingly insubordinate. Despite all that a lot of North Korean troops are believed to be reliable enough to carry out orders to invade South Korea and, given the bad attitudes of many South Korean troops, the Inmun Gun could end up doing a lot of damage. With about 800,000 troops, over 3,000 tanks, 3,000 other AFV, nearly 8,000 artillery pieces (including 2,000 rocket launchers), North Korea has the means to be dangerous, for a little while anyway. Fuel shortages, elderly equipment and lack of maintenance means that a lot of this gear would not stay operational for long. North Korea has two armored divisions, 12 motorized infantry and 23 "leg" infantry divisions (for occupying the DMZ positions).
South Korea, like North Korea, still drafts (conscripts) most of its soldiers, and the young men involved are increasingly unhappy with this involuntary servitude. This is especially true in South Korea where the civilian living standards are among the highest in the world. While many North Korean conscripts see their living standards improve a bit in the military, South Korean draftees are angry over the fact that they are paid practically nothing and most live in elderly and decrepit barracks. The actual pay is about $81 a month. Conscripts in nearby Taiwan get four times as much, and conscripts in Germany (who only serve six months), get about eleven times more than their South Korean counterparts. The minimum wage in South Korea is about four dollars an hour. South Korean troops work about 200 hours a month during much of their 21 months of involuntary service. South Korean conscripts are well educated, and can do the math. Unfortunately, when politicians try to raise conscript pay to what Taiwanese draftees get, which would cost the taxpayers another $2.5 billion, the political support just isn't there.
Surveys indicate that most voters believe the troops should be paid more, and that over 40 percent of conscripts depend on money from home to help them get by. These are young guys, most of them right out of high school, and like their counterparts in other industrialized countries, have certain necessary expenses. A beer now and then, or some food treats are great for morale. The $81 a month they get from the army doesn't cover it. There is a growing morale problem because of this, especially now that the North Koreans have demonstrated a growing willingness, and ability, to kill young South Korean conscripts.
Meanwhile, the South Korea generals are in the midst of a program to reduce troop strength from 680,000 to 500,000 by the end of the decade. The reasons for all this are many. 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. 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, but they don't want to pay for the more expensive volunteer force.
Draft dodging is on the increase, and even within the armed forces, there are fewer volunteers for more challenging jobs, like being a commando. Previously, only NCOs (sergeants) were recruited for army commando units. But that has not been enough of late, so the army is allowing lower ranking troops to volunteer. The marines have long recruited lower ranking troops for commando jobs, and been successful at it. So now the army is following the marine example. But the loss of enthusiasm is disquieting to many South Koreans, especially the older ones who remember the last time the North Korean army came south.
What do the generals think of all this? Some of the generals want a smaller army so they can professionalize it, with a goal of having an all-volunteer force. Conscription is getting more unpopular, and the draftees are becoming less enthusiastic about their service. Another faction of the generals believe a larger army is needed to help deal with a collapse of the North Korean government. They expect a lot of unrest in the north if things fall apart. Other generals believe the reserves could be mobilized for this, and the active force should be cut so living conditions, and pay, of the remaining troops can be improved, along with their morale and effectiveness. Today's conscripts are not as tolerant of the shabby military housing, which was always a problem. Most of today's teenagers grew up in modern housing, and the culture shock of living in some of those ancient barracks is hard to take. An all-volunteer force would require new living quarters, but for a smaller force. Finally, all generals fear a reduction in army size because that will mean a lot less jobs for generals.
Politicians are responding to this by shrinking service 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. That's won't happen as long as North Korea has nearly a million troops aimed south.