[VIEWPOINT]Don’t rush to change the military policyWhen President Roh Moo-hyun suggested a possible reduction of the mandatory period of military duty at a standing committee meeting of the Advisory Council on Democratic Peaceful Unification some time ago, it sparked a big debate over his hidden intentions and the effectiveness of his suggestion.
The mandatory period of military duty was 33 months for the army and 35 months for the navy and the air force until 1990, but it was reduced to the current period of 24 months for the army, 26 months for the navy and 27 months for the air force.
In 2003, when the present government took power, the period of duty for all the armed forces was reduced two months. An extra one-month reduction was later added for the air force.
The Ministry of National Defense presented a “National Defense Reform 2020” plan in 2005 to restructure the military.
According to the plan, the current military force of 680,000 will be reduced to 500,000 by the year 2020, mainly by reducing the number of conscripted soldiers.
In compensation, about 30,000 petty officers will be added, increasing the percentage of officers to 40 percent from the current 25 percent.
The plan also includes the idea of introducing a paid volunteer soldier system to make up for the lack of skilled soldiers.
However, there was no mention of reducing the period of mandatory military service in the 2005 plan.
A Military Resources Research and Planning Committee was established as a follow-up measure. It is currently researching the entire military recruiting system.
In order to effectively use the human resources of our youth, the committee should consider various ways to improve the current military service system.
Korean youths will enter the labor market at later age compared to people in other advanced countries due to the high rate of university attendance and the mandatory military service system.
There is also a structural problem.
The period in which Koreans work is shorter than other advanced countries due to early retirements, etc. The incumbent government’s policy designed to extend that working period is rational.
However, it makes us anxious because the important long-term national plan was divulged through the president’s unrefined remarks at an irrelevant occasion, the standing committee meeting of the Advisory Council on Demo-cratic Peaceful Unification.
Moreover, we are now in a time when the entire nation is paying attention to the upcoming presidential election. It is a typical time, in which countless rosy public pledges are made by politicians.
Therefore, despite the excuses made by the Blue House that the presidential comments had nothing to do with the presidential election, our society’s general atmosphere did not approve of it.
There are a few problems that should be settled before a reduced military service period is put into action.
First of all, the reduction must not lead to a weakening of our military capabilities. The reduction can make it difficult to secure the military resources needed to maintain combat capability, and the standard of the military forces could decline.
The lack of military resources could be solved partially with a bold move: outsourcing non-combat support roles, which are not directly related to fighting and operations, to the civilian sector. These would include such fields as administration and military supplies.
However, a huge budget is needed to carry this out.
If a paid soldier system is introduced to bring about more skilled soldiers, they should be compensated well to compete with the civilian labor market.
The reduction of active soldiers on duty should be supplemented by training armed reserves that can be mobilized as elite troops, and this, too, requires a large budget.
It is also necessary to conduct a public opinion poll as to whether people are prepared to take the burden of such additional expenses.
A plan like this should not be made spontaneously, but implemented under a middle to long-term plan.
Furthermore, it should not be misused for the political purposes of certain political groups hoping to boost their popularity.
I strongly urge the current administration to continue researching the military system, but leave the job of asking public opinion about it to the next administration.
I am also asking the potential presidential candidates not to use this issue as a topic for political debate, but to wait patiently for a new public consensus to be drawn.
No matter how good a policy’s intentions may be, it is better not to rush to implement it, but rather step back for a while, and listen to people’s doubts about the timing and the suspicious intent.
Furthermore, it is not desirable at all for the government, which has to finish the rest of its term, to confuse the nation by raising an issue that will create heated social debates.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hong Doo-seung