June 27, 2011: Starting this year, the South Korean Army banned troops from posting images of military equipment or facilities online. It was also forbidden to discuss military matters online. To enforce the ban (which had actually been around for a while, in one form or another), the army set up a monitoring system. So far this year, about a thousand troops have been caught violating the rules, and 300 were punished. The new rules don't keep the North Koreans from getting the military information they want, but it does hurt morale among South Korean troops. This is just one of many reasons for low morale.
These new rules are especially tough for South Korean troops. That's because South Korea is the most wired nation on the planet, with most households possessing high-speed Internet connections. Young men of military age typically have smart phones as well. Troops are forbidden to have cell phones or digital cameras with them while on duty, but this is also difficult to police. But there are other complications.
South Korea still drafts (conscripts) most of its soldiers, and the young men involved are increasingly unhappy with this involuntary servitude, low pay and rules limiting their Internet access. While recent attacks by North Korea have made this military service more admirable, the draftees are still unhappy. Getting paid practically nothing, compared to conscripts in other countries, plus the Internet restrictions is becoming a major issue. 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. This is partly because over 40 percent of conscripts depend on money from home to help them get through the month. 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 and use of the local Internet café 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 2012. 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 a volunteer force to replace it.
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. 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. 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. 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 a million man army aimed south.
Despite the continued threat of the North Korean army, South Koreans, especially young ones, are becoming increasingly less enthusiastic about doing their army service. 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.