Military service term is on the grill

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Military service term is on the grill


Showing skepticism about a current plan to shorten the mandatory military service period to 18 months by 2014, President Lee Myung-bak ordered his defense team to come up with a new plan yesterday, while rejecting the recommendation of going back to the 24-month-long term.

The nation’s senior defense officials briefed Lee about the direction of defense reform yesterday, including a plan to scrap the scheduled reduction in the military service period.

“Realistically speaking, reversing it and going back to the 24-month term is not an easy task,” Lee was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman, Kim Hee-jung. “We should think about this issue more deeply.”

According to the Blue House, the presidential office’s national security review team has conducted a survey since May 31 to assess the current security situation and to propose improvements. The team reported to the president yesterday about the need to seriously reconsider the planned reduction of the military service term “in order to maintain the proper troop level.”

Technically still at war with North Korea, military service is mandatory for able-bodied Korean men. Under the Defense Reform 2020 program, initiated in 2005 under the late former President Roh Moo-hyun administration, a plan to gradually curtail the service period from 24 months to 18 months by 2014 has been endorsed.

As of now, the duration of military service is 21 months.

“The president thinks cutting it to 18 months will create a problem, but reversing it to 24 months is also impossible,” a Blue House official said. “But we need additional discussions on what will be the appropriate duration.”

The initial reform plan involved cutting the troop level to 500,000 by 2020. The Lee administration has revised the plan, adjusting the goal to 517,000.

As of June, South Korea has 600,000 troops. North Korea is believed to operate with 1.17 million.

Dr. Rhee Sang-woo, a defense expert who headed the review team, said after the Blue House briefing that 24 months is the minimum for the South to maintain its capability.

“An 18-month service won’t allow the military to maintain proper strength,” he said. “It may be a burden for an individual, but the military needs at least 24 months to operate trained soldiers.”

According to defense experts, a soldier needs about nine months of training to perform his duty properly. They worry that under the 18-month service plan, a soldier will only be capable of fighting combat for seven months.

Other key issues were also reported to the president by the national security review team, launched to assess the South Korean military’s efficiencies in the aftermath of the warship Cheonan’s sinking by the North’s torpedo attack in March. The review team’s recommendations will be taken into account when the Presidential Commission on Military Advancement creates a road map.

“The commission will aim to create a specific plan by the end of this year,” said a Blue House official.

Despite the speculation that there will be a recommendation that South Korea revive the idea of naming North Korea as its main enemy to strengthen security awareness, no recommendation was made, the Blue House said.

In the final report, the security review team proposed improvements to the nation’s military to “proactively deter” North Korea’s provocations. Improvements in education, decision-making and the cooperation of the Army, Navy and Air Force were also proposed.

The role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should also be reduced to heighten the efficiency of the command and control system, the team suggested.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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