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The Peninsula

Administration’s Response to Demographic Shift May Alienate Young Men

Published October 11, 2019
Author: Korea View
Category: South Korea

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • The Ministry of National Defense announced plans to loosen physical standards for eligible conscripts. This aims to help the military meet its manpower needs.
  • Simultaneously, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs recognized Ha Jae-heon, a former Army soldier who lost his legs to a North Korean landmine, as having been “wounded in combat.”
  • Observers see the elevation of Ha’s designation from “wounded while in public service” as part of an effort to publicly underscore the government’s appreciation of servicemen.

Implications: The South Korean government’s effort to prevent rapid aging from affecting its military readiness may incur backlash from young men who already feel disenfranchised. While ongoing reforms hedge against the inevitable reduction in military personnel, the government appears to also place emphasis on public outreach to encourage military service. This is evident in improvements in military welfare and the government’s efforts to promote positive images of military service. In particular, men wounded in uniform are now receiving higher compensation to ameliorate negative perceptions.

The government also decided to increase manpower by loosening physical standards for eligible conscripts. This decision has already sparked a backlash among many young men who see the male-only draft as a hindrance to their job prospects and welfare. This cohort of conscription-eligible young men already displays dissatisfaction with the incumbent administration. According to a Gallup Korea poll in September, only 31% of men in their 20s have a favorable view of the government. Only men in their 60s have responded with a lower favorability towards the incumbent administration.

Context: The number of conscripts fell from 291,000 in 2009 to 253,000 in 2018. This corresponds with the shrinking population in the past decade. The number of men eligible for conscription is expected to fall below 250,000 after 2022. As a result, even if 90 percent of young men serve in the armed forces as a volunteer or conscript, South Korea will have to ensure future preparedness with a drastically smaller military.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from the U.S. Department of Defense website

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