The South Korean military has a new enemy: demographic math

(CNN) — South Korea, a country with the lowest birth rate in the world, may soon find itself without enough soldiers to maintain its army. Analysts say it comes at a time of new threats in the increasingly tense Western Pacific region.

South Korea, which has always been wary of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, maintains an active-duty army of about half a million soldiers. But with a birth rate of only 0.78 children per woman, mathematics may be South Korea’s biggest enemy at the moment, and experts say it will have no choice but to tone down its forces.

Choi Byung-uk, a professor of national security at Sangmyung University, said, “With our current birth rate, the future is predetermined. Reduction of force will be inevitable.”

To maintain the current troop level, the South Korean military needs to conscript or conscript about 200,000 soldiers per year, he said.

However, less than 250,000 babies were born in 2022. Assuming a 50-50 split between men and women, this means that in 20 years, when those children are old enough to join the military, there will only be 125,000 men available for the 200,000 positions needed.

According to Defense Ministry data, women are not recruited in South Korea and currently constitute only 3.6% of volunteers in the Korean military.

According to Statistics Korea, the annual number of newborns is expected to decline to 220,000 in 2025 and 160,000 in 2072.

Preparation for two decades

While South Korea’s declining birth rate has been making headlines in recent years, it is a trend the military saw coming and prepared for.

In the early 2000s, Seoul decided to voluntarily reduce the number of active troops from 674,000 in 2006 to 500,000 in 2020, “on the basis that the threat from North Korea will gradually reduce”, and a Small military forces will be promoted. But more specific according to the 2022 Defense White Paper.

The South Korean military has achieved that goal by reducing its troop strength by 27.6% over the two decades between 2002 and 2022.

But this assumption that the threat from North Korea will reduce has been proven wrong.

Kim Jong Un, the third consecutive member of his family dynasty, came to power in Pyongyang in 2011. After a short period of time while negotiating with South Korea and the United States to reduce tensions, he pushed for a massive military increase in Korea. In the North, particularly its ballistic missile programs.

Following North Korea’s test of its fifth intercontinental ballistic missile this year, Kim warned that his country would be “hesitating” to launch a nuclear attack in the face of provocation by an enemy with nuclear weapons, referring to the deployment of nuclear-capable US weapons platforms. Will not do. in and around the Korean peninsula, state media KCNA reported earlier this month.

But if Kim were to attack across the 38th Parallel, which divided North and South Korea after a 1953 armistice ending the Korean War, it would be the South Korean military that would bear the greatest defense burden.

turning to technology

Experts say South Korea should turn to science and technology to counter the North Korean threat and turn the manpower crisis into technological transformation.

Chun In-bum, a former lieutenant general of the South Korean army, said, “It has long been the policy of Korean defense officials that we will move from a personnel-oriented army to a technology-oriented army.”

In 2005, South Korea’s Defense Ministry published a plan to transform its military into a science and technology-focused force by 2020, but progress has been little.

“Although the military tried to make that change, there was no urgency, because with the recruits (from South Korea)… there were a lot of human resources there,” Choi said.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown the world that troop numbers alone are not enough on a modern battlefield. According to a recent assessment by the US Defense Department, of the 360,000 troops, including contract and conscripted personnel, in the Russian ground forces before the invasion, Moscow has lost 315,000 troops on the battlefield.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s use of drones and high-tech weapons supplied by Western partners has had a lethal effect on Moscow’s large forces.

South Korea is emphasizing on integrating new technologies into its combat units.

Last year, the Defense Ministry said it would gradually transform into an artificial intelligence-based manned and unmanned team warfare system (MUM-T), and introduced the Army’s so-called “future unit” Tiger Brigade, which It uses both manpower and unmanned equipment to carry out missions.

South Korea is also developing unmanned military equipment, including medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Experts say soldiers are indispensable

But Chun, a former South Korean general, says technology does not solve all problems.

For example, labor is required to acquire and hold territory. And there is a need for well-trained and educated people to manage and monitor artificial intelligence (AI) systems on the battlefield.

“It won’t be enough, no matter how hard we try,” Chun said of the technology. “It will help, but it won’t solve the problem that we’re losing people.”

Both he and Choi have some ideas about how to get the most out of a small military force.

Chun said, on the one hand, the advantage of the recruitment system and the reserve component it generates.

“We need to improve our mobility system, where we can take advantage of the large reserve population that we have,” Chun said.

South Korean marines look inland during a landing rehearsal on the beach for Exercise Sang Yong March 28 in Pohang, South Korea. (Brad Landon/CNN)

Once South Korean men complete their 18 to 21 months of mandatory military service, they become reservists for eight years. During this time, once a year they are called to their assigned units to remind them of their positions and duties. And after that, they have to attend civil defense training every year till the age of 40.

This system means that South Korea currently has 3.1 million reserve soldiers.

Reservists must attend a two-night, three-day training session each year.

An ongoing pilot system involves training a select number of reservists 180 days a year to enhance their skills.

Another option is to increase the number of professional cadre (commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers and junior officers), all of whom are volunteers and serve long periods, during which they will become familiar with the operation of advanced weapons. In combat capability despite the lack of standing forces to avoid,” according to the 2022 white paper.

According to the Defense Ministry, the Army is looking to increase the proportion of cadre in its total force from 31.6% in 2017 to 40.2% in 2022. He said a further increase of 40.5% is planned by 2027.

a recruitment problem

There’s only one problem with this plan: The population doesn’t agree.

According to Defense Ministry data, the number of applicants for commissioned officer posts has declined over the years from around 30,000 in 2018 to 19,000 in 2022.

Choi said, “The Army faces enormous difficulties in obtaining excellent entry-level professional cadres who will constitute an excellent officer corps in 10 or 20 years.” He cited inadequate financial and social benefits for the cadres as the main reason for the decline. Application Rates.

Should we also consider women in the military with mandatory military service?

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Israel has mandatory military service and 40% of its conscripted army is female. In the all-volunteer armed forces of the United States and Canada, more than 16% of soldiers are women.

Choi said recruiting women could solve South Korea’s problem, but added that there were too many obstacles to do so in Korea’s traditionally patriarchal society. And even if those obstacles can be overcome, it could prove very costly.

“There are many complicating factors such as social costs and women giving birth. So, I think the cost (to the needy) will be much greater than the actual benefit,” he said.

But Chun believes it is possible to attract female volunteers if the remuneration is attractive enough.

“If a soldier is paid US$2,000 (per month), it’s a legitimate job. Then a woman will say, OK, I want to be able to get that job for US$2,000. Because that same job For, he would probably be paid US$1,500 in the outside world,” he said.

For its part, the Defense Ministry says increasing the number of women in the service is a possibility, among other considerations.

But there is no deadline for changes and South Korea may not have time.

Earlier this month, Statistics Korea reported that the record birth rate is expected to fall further over the next two years to 0.65 births per woman in 2025.

CNN’s Brad Landon contributed to this report.

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