South Korea is reorganizing its
armed forces for a future that might, or might not, include North Korea. Plans
to shrink the size of the armed forces have been speeded up. Last year, the
plan was to reduce troop strength 26 percent (from 680,000 to 500,000) by 2020.
Now, the plan is to do it over the next five years. 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 todays' voters want to get rid of the draft.
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.
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 are 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 Korea officers and troops to
discuss in detail how an all-volunteer, high tech force works. Meanwhile, U.S.
forces in South Korea will shrink to 25,000 by the end of the decade.