Mending the alternative military service system

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

Mending the alternative military service system

Hong Kyu-dok

The author, former head of the Defense Reform Office at the Ministry of National Defense, is a professor of political science and foreign affairs at the Sookmyung Women’s University.

After Jin, the oldest member of the K-pop phenomenon BTS, canceled his application for a military deferment to follow through with the enlistment process, other members said they will follow him. ARMY, the fan group of the band, as well as most other people supported Jin’s decision, putting an end to a heated debate on whether BTS members should be given special treatment to serve in some kind of alternative service.

Because of a drastic shortage of military manpower resources, it is impossible to maintain the current alternative military service system. The peak of the baby-boomer generation were people born in 1971. In that year, Korea had 1.04 million newborns. Since then, the number of newborns decreased, and the country only had 260,000 in 2021. Roughly speaking, there is no more than 130,000 draftees even if they are all enlisted.

The low birthrate will continue. Demographers analyzed that a red light has been lit on Korea’s competitiveness along with rapid aging. The number of children a woman gives birth to during her lifetime fell to 0.75 in the second quarter from an average of 0.81 last year. This is a national crisis.

Many people think that the Korean military still maintains about 600,000 soldiers. But the number has already dropped to 500,000, and it will be hard to maintain that size by 2030. According to recent research commissioned by the Ministry of National Defense, the number will drop to 350,000 in late 2035. In this case, the number of draftees was estimated as 180,000, but taking into account the rapidly plummeting birthrate, the number will fall further.

Although the existence of the military is threatened, politicians repeatedly call for a shortening of the military service period and the introduction of a volunteer military service. The argument goes the same for the alternative military service system. Taking into account the demographics, it is inevitable to reduce the scope of alternative military service for those with special talents in sports and arts. Therefore, Jin’s decision made a great precedent. But we still need a detailed policy to offer an opportunity to the young draftees to make the best use of their capabilities in the military.

The military needs to systemically educate and manage science and technology specialists to avoid falling behind in the advanced artificial intelligence and science defense era. Israel’s Talpiot program is an elite training program of the country’s defense forces to recruit those who have demonstrated outstanding abilities in sciences. It is a classic case of how society, the military, universities and companies must educate talent and work together. The members are recruited through competition, and those trained in the Talpiot program do not have to worry about their future career paths. Their missions are conducted in a relatively free environment and the military values the outcome. There is hardly any conflict concerning disciplines and hierarchies, either.

Russia also operates a science specialist team. AK-47 rifles, the most widely-used assault rifles in the world, were invented by a military engineer while he was in the service. Russia enlists talented students from engineering schools to secure the technologies for the military. Their patented technologies are used in the military and defense companies. The military operates 17 technology companies to maintain an intellectual technology community in the military.

Korea did make a similar attempt. The Department of Cyber Defense at Korea University has a special contract with the military that all graduates will be commissioned as officers and serve for up to seven years. The first generation finishes their seven-year service this year and returns to society. The problem is that they cannot utilize their capabilities in the best positions. According to their accounts, the Korean military is an extremely rigid organization. Changing the way of working and introducing a culture of innovation, not changing the system, are more urgent.

During one semester, I offered a lecture, “War and Peace,” to engineering students at the Pohang University of Science and Technology. I visited a battalion of the Marine’s 1st Division with my students and experienced their service aboard an amphibious vehicle. I was surprised that one student showed interest in developing a power mechanism to maintain buoyancy and a technology to prevent water penetration. The military must think about how it can make the best use of the young talents and motivate them, and that is true defense reform.

Paying a larger salary to Generation Z is necessary, but more importantly, we must create conditions that they can use their talents sufficiently. When the military becomes like isolated Galapagos Islands, nothing will work. While all youngsters should be drafted, we should have a policy to offer them the best positions and opportunities in the military. We need to create a clear principle to revise the alternative military service system to serve the demands of the time.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)