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South Korea Needs a Wake-Up Call On Its Reservist Crisis

As the battle in Ukraine unfolds, some nations have began to take a nearer have a look at the readiness of their navy reserve forces, and what they’re discovering underneath the hood has given some a trigger for concern. In the case of South Korea, latest finances allocation traits that emphasize fourth industrial revolution initiatives and omnidirectional nationwide protection methods coincide with low ranges of funding for navy reserve forces, canceled or substandard coaching occasions, rising charges of dissatisfaction for navy service, and declining ranges of assist and respect for navy service among the many South Korean public. This is a recipe for catastrophe ought to South Korea enter a standard battle with North Korea.

Although efforts to enhance South Korea’s navy reserve forces have are available in matches and begins, as seen with the creation of Mobilization Forces Command in 2018, South Korea continues to emphasise fourth-generation protection initiatives on the expense of coaching and equipping its largely conscript military. While new fleets of warships and plane could create the phantasm of readiness and require little sacrifice from the general public apart from a tax burden, nurturing an efficient reserve power takes years and requires sacrifices each from the general public and from particular person reservists that for some leaders has turn into politically unpalatable.



The Threat

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile checks garner probably the most consideration today, one of many lesser publicized threats posed by North Korea are its uneven warfare capabilities, and the potential that also exists for a “blitzkrieg” of South Korea utilizing hybrid and guerrilla warfare. Although North Korea has all the time employed uneven capabilities towards the South Korean-U.S. alliance, the previous 20 years have seen a dramatic improve within the stage of significance accorded to these capabilities. For instance, shortly after his rise to energy, Kim Jong-un directed his navy to develop a new battle plan to grab all the peninsula in seven days utilizing uneven warfare. It is a technique partly created out of necessity. As North Korea’s standard power functionality deteriorated over the previous 20 years, the North Korean regime more and more emphasised uneven warfare capabilities akin to nuclear weapons, short-range ballistic missiles, particular operations forces, and the event of insertion platforms akin to hovercraft and submarines.

How prepared South Korea is to face this kind of menace leaves room for debate, but when historical past is any information, the outcomes will not be reassuring.

Born out of close to catastrophe, the historic impetus for the creation of a massive South Korean navy reserve power got here within the wake of 1968 Blue House raid when North Korean commandos efficiently infiltrated deep into South Korea and have been in a position to launch an assault on the president’s residence within the middle of Seoul. Despite not attaining their objective of assassinating President Park Chung-hee, the attackers killed 26 — together with 4 American troopers who died trying to dam the North Koreans from escaping again to North Korea — and wounded one other 66. One North Korean commando escaped.

Following the incident, Park said, “About 2.5 million reservists across the country will be fully armed so that the whole nation can be prepared for possible attacks by armed communist guerillas.” Mass sign-ups came about throughout the nation, together with 10,000 girls who volunteered to serve within the native reserve forces. The undeniable fact that North Korean forces have been in a position to so adeptly infiltrate South Korea alarmed each Seoul and Washington and helped impress assist for a massive and responsive South Korean reserve power.

Since then, South Korean protection technique has employed its reserve forces in two methods. The first is thru mobilization divisions and particular person reservists who assist the active-duty divisions. The second perform requires homeland reserve divisions to assist rear-area operations and homeland protection. These are the forces almost certainly for use to counter North Korean particular forces or uneven threats all through the rear space.

Is the South Korean Army Reserve Ready?

Although the South Korean military reserve is presently made up of reserve divisions for rear-area operations and mobilization divisions in assist of the active-duty power, the majority of Korea’s 2.7 million military reservists are particular person riflemen who function replacements. During peacetime, the South Korean military’s divisions embrace round 20 p.c reservists on the squad stage and are solely approved three days of coaching per yr. Considering the time required by the U.S. Army Reserve to mobilize and train-up for deployment, three days is barely sufficient time to get by means of all administrative duties, not to mention reply to a unanticipated North Korean rear-area incursion.

Based on the authors’ discussions with quite a few retired South Korean military officers, Seoul doesn’t worth its reserve forces, and in some instances, reserve items are nonetheless utilizing World War II-era tools. With solely three coaching days per yr for reservists, little or no is completed apart from accountability, administrative duties, and fundamental qualification. Ultimately, a lack of funding and focus drives a minimalist strategy to coaching and equipping the military reserve. Coupled with a lower in South Korean-U.S. mixed coaching workout routines since mid-2018, general reserve and active-duty capabilities have degraded.

As of 2021, the South Korean reserve forces acquired roughly 0.44 p.c of the nationwide protection finances. Although this was a rise from 0.31 p.c in 2018, it’s nonetheless far in need of the rise to 1 p.c promised by the administration of President Moon Jae-in. According to at least one analyst, poor manning and few sources have led to a scenario during which South Korean Mobilization Forces Command “cannot effectively fulfill the task as a control tower.”

An absence of funding and the restricted variety of coaching days per yr end in an incapacity to coach on elementary soldier abilities akin to “shoot, move, communicate” — not to mention discover alternatives to conduct large-scale coaching occasions that may put together the reserve divisions to counter North Korea’s 200,000+ particular forces which can be anticipated to flood South Korea’s rear space throughout contingency. Unlike most trendy reserve programs employed by militaries around the globe which have embraced interoperability between their reserve and energetic parts, South Korea nonetheless sees them as separate and distinct. Lack of coaching, and the impact it has on unit cohesion, is compounded by a post-industrial South Korean society that isn’t solely shrinking, however more and more concentrated within the capital metropolis of Seoul, which now accounts for over 50 p.c of South Korea’s inhabitants.

This has implications on mobilization response occasions for particular person reservists who could hail from a rural space and be assigned to that area’s mobilization middle, however who dwell and work on the opposite aspect of the nation. Considering the seemingly use of cyber operations to disrupt info expertise networks to delay mobilization notification and response occasions, the chance of reservists having the inclination and means to report inside the wanted timeframe is extremely questionable, and in flip impacts the power to successfully counter North Korean special-forces actions within the extra rural and underpopulated areas south of Seoul. With practically all South Korea’s active-duty formations and over half of its inhabitants situated both in or north of Seoul, the rear space is more and more trying susceptible to simply such an incursion. The influence of simply such an incursion could possibly be devastating, particularly if these reservists assigned to homeland reserve divisions are unable — or unwilling — to report for obligation. This is strictly what occurred in 1996 throughout the Gangneung submarine infiltration incident.

On Sept. 18, 1996, a North Korean Sang-O-class submarine ran aground off the coast of South Korea whereas returning to choose up a number of spies inserted to assemble intelligence on a close by airbase. Upon abandoning the submarine, the North Korean reconnaissance bureau troopers executed the crew of the ship and went ashore to make their manner dwelling through land routes. Over the course of the operation, roughly 13,000 South Korean reserve troops have been used along with South Korean active-duty forces. By the top of a manhunt that lasted practically two months, 12 South Korean navy and 4 civilian personnel had been killed, with one other 27 wounded. Among these have been one reserve soldier and a police officer. Of the 26 North Koreans, 11 of the submarine crew have been seemingly executed by certainly one of their very own as punishment for the unintentional grounding, , 13 by the South Korean military, and one was captured. As within the 1968 Blue House raid, one North Korean commando is believed to have escaped.

The classes from the Gangneung incident ought to give pause to navy planners in Seoul as to the readiness of South Korea’s reserve forces. An after-action overview with 700 reserve troopers confirmed that 84 p.c of respondents didn’t know their mobilization procedures, and 81 p.c stated that they didn’t know which unit they need to go to after receiving the call-up order. In addition, solely 28 p.c stated that they might reply instantly upon receipt of one other call-up order. According to at least one report by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997, solely 34 p.c of reserve forces responded and mobilized on the primary day of their call-up, and there have been reviews of fratricide, situations of troopers going AWOL, and consumption of alcohol whereas on obligation. Some items went as far as to not even distribute ammunition to their reservists. The North Korean troopers took notice of the poor ways and coaching of the South Korean navy throughout the operation: Throughout their escape, they maintained detailed journal entries during which they made enjoyable of the South Korean navy, their coaching, and the way simple it was to flee.

While the 1968 Blue House raid galvanized assist for the creation of a responsive and broad-based South Korean military reserve, the 1996 submarine infiltration embarrassment seems to have completed the precise reverse. Instead, South Korea’s protection technique went down the trail of high-tech acquisitions and a give attention to its navy and air power, with the nation now on observe to be the biggest spender on navy analysis and improvement as proportion of its general protection finances.

Korea has modified a lot since 1996, and never within the ways in which would have led to vital enhancements to its massive reserve power or the readiness of its homeland reserve divisions. How South Korea’s reserves would fare in 2022 is a matter of conjecture, and assessing readiness is all the time difficult, however the declining ranges of public assist for navy service, coupled with historic precedent and present low ranges of finances apportionment for coaching and equipping the reserves, would seemingly end in comparable, if not worse, outcomes. Looming over these elementary issues for readiness is South Korea’s demographic time bomb, which is anticipated to dramatically influence the scale of the navy. One report from the South Korean Ministry of National Defense estimates that the pool of draftees will seemingly “decline by half over the next two decades” and has led the navy to discover the potential for increasing the draft to incorporate girls.

Ultimately, the influence of inadequate funding impacts particular person reserve soldier efficacy. This creates a vicious cycle that negatively impacts perceptions of navy service amongst South Korea’s post-industrial inhabitants.

Declining Levels of Public Support

Recent polling completed in Korea provides some perception into how South Korean society views navy service, and the outcomes will not be reassuring. According to the Korean Woman’s Development Institute, 82 p.c of males of their 20s agree with the assertion that navy service needs to be averted, whereas a ballot of high-school college students in Busan discovered that solely 27 p.c stated that navy service was “natural and honorable.” These sentiments are additionally mirrored in a 2015 Military Manpower Administration research of over 4,000 servicemen, during which in 57 p.c of respondents stated that “their pride has not grown” or that “they take not much pride” in navy service. These unfavorable perceptions manifest in such tragedies because the  South Korean reserve coaching incident at a capturing vary in 2015, when a soldier killed two reservists and wounded two others earlier than taking his personal life. These numbers ought to alarm the political-military management of South Korea, particularly as analysis into the significance of the need to struggle as a vital part of navy functionality continues to evolve. Regrettably, declining ranges of assist amongst younger South Koreans for public service is starting to increase past the navy, as evidenced by declining competitors ratios for South Korea’s much-feared civil service examination.

The research above tackle the more and more unfavorable pattern amongst South Korean perceptions of navy service, and now public service writ massive. For a nation that faces such a potent and proximate enemy in North Korea, these sentiments influence general navy readiness. Constituting practically 2.7 million personnel in South Korea, the South Korean military reserve is uniquely positioned to affect these perceptions, and probably reverse them if South Korean protection coverage helps it sufficiently. Scholars from Israel have appropriately identified that reserve forces function a bridge between a nation’s navy and its civil society and assist transmit values between the 2 communities and restrict undesirable divergences. Research in Israel has additionally proven that regardless of criticism from their active-duty friends, reserve forces function a vital part of a legit navy as a result of connection reserve-force personnel have with the broader civilian inhabitants.

Symbolic and Material Rewards

As the inhabitants of South Korea continues to say no, the usage of symbolic and materials rewards to draw high quality expertise into the navy will turn into more and more necessary. This is particularly true if South Korea goes down the trail of embracing a massive all-volunteer military on the expense of conscription, very similar to Taiwan. A very good first step is perhaps to deliver again the 1999 factors rewards system. While beforehand deemed unconstitutional because it gave navy males a bonus within the civilian office, it has lately gained assist from a number of conservative lawmakers and retired military generals.

Although some writing exists on how South Korea can study from the U.S. Army Reserve, a extra broad-based strategy is perhaps helpful. The instance of Singapore with its cadre-conscript mannequin produces good outcomes and is perhaps one thing South Korea can undertake to be able to strike a stability between its rising socio-economic standing and navy readiness. South Korea could even need to discover the creation of territorial forces, an strategy some advocate for Taiwanese protection.

In addition, possibly it’s time for the South Korean Army Reserve to turn into a severe dialog for the South Korean-U.S. alliance by way of mixed coaching occasions and use of American forces to assist with coaching South Korean reserve items. For instance, the addition of a rotational gentle infantry brigade in a “train, advise, assist” capability to the South Korean military reserve’s homeland divisions would possibly assist enhance the morale of reservists by means of seen interplay with the American navy and by studying useful abilities on combating uneven threats.

If completed proper, and if the political-military management of South Korea has the need, the South Korean military reserve can probably function a car for creating a worth proposition with the South Korean public on the significance of nationwide safety and nationwide service. Of better influence, it might even assist reverse declining ranges of public assist for navy service.

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, taught us something, it’s that a nation’s capability to struggle and win wars relies on the standard of its troopers, not merely the gear they carry or the alliance companion they’ve of their nook. For massive, trendy militaries akin to South Korea and Taiwan, this functionality resides with the standard of accessible nationwide manpower they will draw upon in occasions of battle — specifically, their navy reserves.



Brendan Balestrieri holds a bachelor’s from The Citadel, an MA from Korea University, and an MA from Johns Hopkins University. A lieutenant colonel within the United States Army Reserve, he has over 17 years of expertise serving with the United States navy in South Korea and Iraq. He is presently a Ph.D. candidate in worldwide relations at Korea University Graduate School of International Studies.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Won-geun Koo is a graduate of the Korea Military Academy and former commander of South Korea’s Army Mobilization Forces Command. He holds a Ph.D. in public administration and is presently the top of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Leadership for the Military at Open Cyber University of Korea.

The views expressed are these of the authors and don’t mirror the official coverage or place of the Department of Defense, the U.S. authorities, or the South Korean authorities.

Image: Republic of Korea Armed Forces