Cancel compulsory conscription

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Cancel compulsory conscription


Baek Kun-ki

During the presidential election in 2012, one main opposition party candidate bidding for presidency proposed to change the military draft from the current compulsory enlistment to a voluntary one.

A poll was conducted. Out of 750 adults aged over 19 across the nation, more than 60 opposed the plan while 15.5 percent agreed with it, suggesting that most people agree with compulsory conscription.

As a retired general, I lingered over the question. Is a volunteer system such a far-fetched option for Korea? I don’t believe so.

During my 40-year military service, I have met a multitude of soldiers. They are valuable assets to the country and national security. But by the time they have become skilled and combat-ready, they are discharged. The mandatory service has been shortened over the years and now averages 21 months. Anyone who has commanded an infantry unit will agree that less than two years is too short a period to produce a capable soldier. But lengthening military service is out of the question. This is a dilemma for the Korean military.

Military servicemen are career combat men. Those who have been forced to register and serve in the Army for a certain period cannot be expected to have the same commitment and capabilities as those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to protecting the nation.

All careers require a certain period of training and practice. In any line of work, one becomes more or less competent and reliable after doing it for at least three years. Soldiers must go through rigorous discipline and training in order to save their own life, or the lives of others, in an armed combat situation. But readiness in life-and-death situations is hard to achieve under the current service period.

Equipment is becoming more and more complicated and sophisticated. Men won’t be able to engage in combat unless they are fully familiar with weapon systems and other military technology. The Navy and Air Force are mostly manned by commissioned officers because of the sophistication in fleet operation. But arms for ground troops such as guided weaponry and spike missiles have become just as advanced as those used at sea and in the air.

According to the Military Manpower Administration, the number of eligible recruits for compulsory service is decreasing. Soon, the country will have an undersized army. If unskilled servicemen passing through the military for less than two years make up half of smaller military units, the country’s overall combat readiness could be in jeopardy.

A sudden transformation to a voluntary military cannot take place. Enlistment takes time, and the cost of retaining a military could go up astronomically. A buffer stage would be needed. The military could first recruit volunteers in technology and special combat forces. According to the demand, it can gradually increase the quota for volunteer enlistment in other fields. The overall military system and culture also should be transformed to accommodate career soldiers and volunteer recruits.

To make a volunteer system work, the social status of soldiers must improve. They should not be regarded as subordinates of commissioned officers but as able combat members. The country has so far sustained its military and national defense by recruiting young men cheaply through a mandatory system. The system has fostered prejudice against uniformed officers and the military service. This must be improved.

Revising the military system will require national-level research and study. Civilian and military researchers must work together to come up with an optimal formula and framework to restructure the military. There have been many independent studies on voluntary conscription, but not in a joint private-public collaboration. Sooner or later, the volunteer system won’t be an option, it will be an inevitability. It will be better to start the work now rather than later.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng daily staff.

* The author is a representative of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy and a member of the National Assembly Defense Committee.

BY Baek Kun-ki

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