Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Policy Concerns of Low Fertility for Military Planning in South Korea

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Policy Concerns of Low Fertility for Military Planning in South Korea

Article excerpt

South Korea's low fertility rate is a prominent issue and widely discussed among scholars and policymakers. The looming economic challenges posed by unprecedented low birth rates in much of Asia are already being explored. But in light of the persistent and palpable security risks on the Korean Peninsula, another aspect of this issue is of increasing concern: How can South Korea ensure national security with so few young people to fill the ranks of its massive military? Troop levels cannot possibly be sustained given South Korea's rapidly declining population.

South Korea (Republic of Korea) is a heavily militarized nation, with the sixth-largest armed forces in the world. The only countries with larger forces are China, the United States, India, Russia, and North Korea. Given the historical disagreements and recent developments in the Yellow Sea, it is unlikely that there will be a major scaling back of military presence in either North or South Korea.1

Concurrently, South Korea is one of the countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world. South Korea's fertility rate has been below replacement level since 1983 and has experienced further decline to the total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.2 first recorded in 2002. Despite this sustained low fertility rate, scholars and policymakers have not adequately considered whether declining numbers of young men will pose a security risk for South Korea in the coming years, and what measures they might take to contend with the problem.

Options for the Military to Ameliorate Low Fertility

Five possible options for avoiding the dearth of potential conscripts are: (1) to decrease the size of active military and introduce high-tech security systems; (2) to increase (or not shorten) service time; (3) to increase fertility; (4) to increase immigration; and (5) to increase the number of women serving in the military. The first two options hold the most hope, while the last three options will be difficult for South Korea to achieve.

Decrease size of active military? The first option of decreasing the size of the armed forces would be a practical measure for dealing with the imploding population, though potentially risky if not balanced with technological advances in the military. South Korean government officials and military officers, keenly aware of the declining number of potential recruits, have put into place reductions of army troops from 522,000 to 387,000 by 2020. Navy and air force branches are expected to maintain their current size for the time being at 68,000 and 65,000 troops, respectively.

Migration and mortality rates for 20-year-olds in South Korea are negligible, so fertility is responsible for virtually the entire decline of potential recruits. In 2013-2014, there are projected to be approximately 367,000-368,000 20-year-old men in South Korea, the largest number in the period under review. Between now and 2013, there will be slightly insufficient numbers of 20-year-olds to maintain troop size, but from 2013-2020, the pool of conscripts should be adequate as projections of the number of 20-yearolds is higher than the required number of recruits. Starting in 2020, however, the situation will become more problematic, and by 2050, if troop size is kept constant, only the most optimistic of the projection series (see figure on previous page) indicates that the country will come close to producing the supply of needed men.

Increase service time? In an effort to make military service more attractive to recruits, in 2008 the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced plans for a reduction of service terms by six months, to be implemented gradually over eight years. The official rationale for the reduction was that "gradually reducing the service period to relieve citizens' burdens and allow more people to fulfill their obligations by assigning service duties fairly."2 Unfortunately, while a shorter service term might be appealing to potential recruits, such a reduction of service time would be counterproductive for the South Korean military and even works against the MND's own stated goal of manpower planning (see figure on page 5). …

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