Conditions must improve
Career officers have proven more powerful and effective than a forcibly manned military throughout history. The mighty Ancient Roman infantry troops that conquered the Mediterranean and the modern-day dominant military power - U.S. forces - are composed of volunteer servicemen.
Career officers have pride in their service and are well skilled. Countries sustained by a volunteer military offer sufficient rewards, compensation and benefits to retain a military based on committed and loyal recruits.
If we were to shift to an all-volunteer military, it could become more capable and powerful. But is a volunteer system a plausible option? It would be ideal, but unfortunately is impossible in our case. We are a land that is at constant risk of war against nuclear-armed North Korea, which habitually threatens to wipe out the South. We must retain an Army of at least 300,000 men.
Since specialized and commissioned Navy and Air Forces as well as units under direct command of the Defense Ministry cannot be scaled down, we can assume that 350,000 conscripts of the current 500,000-strong military could be replaced by volunteer enlistees to maintain a total Army of about 480,000. In short, 500,000 conscripts in the military, which currently cost 1.5 million won ($1,478) a year, would have to be replaced with 350,000 career officers who would need to be paid at least 20 million won a year each.
Finance is the biggest problem. The cost to retain current conscripts is about 700 billion won a year. But an all-volunteer military of 350,000 officers would cost around 7 trillion won. Even if recruits are paid the minimum wage, the country would need to raise 6.3 trillion won a year to sustain the military. If the Army was small due to a shortage of officers, it would have to compensate with advanced equipment to keep defense capacity up to a formidable standard.
The Defense Ministry would have to invest more in strategic weapons and at a faster pace. A shift to a volunteer military would require at least 10 trillion won extra a year. Will people relinquish various social welfare programs to finance a spike in defense spending?
Even if funding was available, enlistment would not be easy. The United States, with a population of 320 million, has 1.42 million enlistees. Japan, with a population of 130 million, has a volunteer military of 230,000. The U.S. offers citizenship to immigrants in order to sustain its military. Japan also spends an enormous amount recruiting servicemen. These countries offer good salaries and welfare benefits as well as various privileges.
It is highly doubtful that a country of 50 million can easily recruit 480,000 for volunteer duty for three to five years without any benefits. Would any parent encourage his 20-something son to stake their life for a job that pays 20 million won a year and does not guarantee a future? How inspiring can a temporary military career be for young men?
What is ideal is often crushingly incompatible in the real world. Experiments with a volunteer system at a time when North Korea continues to make threats with nuclear weapons could interrupt defense spending and undermine overall combat readiness.
Our military will inevitably rely more on U.S. forces. Instead of arguing over an ambitious idea like a volunteer military, we focus more on the details. What is imperative now is improving the soldiers’ environment, conditions and treatment.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is the head of the Korea Defense Network.
BY Shin In-kyun