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The Negative Implications of Declining Population Growth on the National Security: The Case of South Korea
South Korea’s national security is seriously undermined by its population problem. Rapid aging and falling birth rates are expected to cause a gradual population decline throughout this century. Demographic crisis will negatively affect country’s economic output and military readiness. The main concern is the impact of population decline on South Korea’s defense capabilities against Democratic Republic of North Korea’s (DPRK) military aggression. South Korea and DPRK are still technically at war. Tensions between two countries remain extremely high. DPRK has conducted 88 missile tests since 2011, as well as six successful nuclear weapon detonations between 2006 and 2017. Confrontation reached its peak when DPRK submarine sunk South Korean navy vessel in unprecedented and unprovoked attack in 2010 that took lives of 46 sailors. Increasing military buildup and complete disregard to Korean Armistice Agreement by DPRK clearly shows that there is no prospect of conflict de-escalation and consequent ceasefire in the near future. DPRK’s natural population growth rate is expected to be significantly higher than of South Korea’s throughout this century. Pyongyang will most likely be able to maintain a force of 1 million active duty service members for the next several decades. South Korean defense budget will be heavily affected by growing number of social security beneficiaries and workforce shortage by 2050. National security of South Korea will become extremely vulnerable to direct military attack by DPRK in case of no immediate action.
Figure 1. Total Fertility Rate of Republic of Korea. “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision,” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2017).
Korean population is rapidly declining due to the combination of natural and human induced factors. Today, Korean woman is expected to give birth approximately to 1.2 children during her lifespan compared to 6.1 children in 1960. Population decline can be linked to rapid urbanization and detrimental population control measures that started half a century ago. Fearing population explosion, in 1960’s Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea started encouraging Koreans to have one child families. Unfortunately, this policy now is one of the major contributing factors in South Korea’s decreasing working-age population. The number of economically inactive citizens is expected to outnumber working-age population in 2039. In 2016, 82% of Korea’s total population lived in cities. Urbanization led to rural impoverishment and mass internal migration of women to major cities, which increased the number of unmarried men in rural areas. According to recent data, 47% of Koreans in their early 30’s are unmarried. South Korean government failed to identify forthcoming crisis and implement appropriate preventive measures. It can be assumed with high confidence that this trend will continue without timely mitigation.
Population decline is projected to result in manpower shortage in armed forces and labor sector within the next several decades. Social security spending will increase due to the rising number of retirees. Health expenditure rose from 3.8% to 7.2% between 1995 and 2013 and expected to gradually increase throughout the remainder of this century.
Figure 2. Birth Rate, Deaths, and Natural Population Increase of South Korea from 1981 to 2016. Kim So-youn,“2016 Saw Lowest Number of Births Ever Recorded in South Korea,” The Hankyoreh, February 23, 2017.
Marriage has become largely unpopular among the South Korean women. According to one of the surveys conducted by the South Korean government, only 45.6% of female respondents aged 9-24 stated that marriage is something that they should do in life in comparison to 62.9% of males. This trend is most likely attributed to cultural shift due to improved access to education and economic development. In 2016, 406,300 children were born in South Korea, which is the lowest number of births ever recorded. In contrast, the number of births was at 867,000 in 1981. It is a 53% decrease. The number of deaths has been growing as well. From 237,000 mortalities in 1981 to 281,000 in 2016. The combination of low birth rate and increasing death rate is negatively affecting natural population growth in Korea.
South Korea has the fastest-rising average age among the OECD countries. The impact of rapidly aging population is already visible. Total numbers of people in the workforce is expected to fall by 1.2% every year until 2025, with numbers increasing to 2% thereafter until 2050.  This year, South Korean government proposed the biggest budget spending plan since the financial crisis of 2008. Total spending is expected to increase by 4.6% in 2018. The increase was primarily prompted by the growing welfare costs associated with aging population. According to United Nations World Population Prospects, 6.4 million South Koreans (12.7% of population) were aged 65 or older in 2014. In 2026, 10.7 million South Koreans (20.5% of population) are projected to be 65 or older. Public pension expenditure is expected to gradually increase throughout the first half of this century. In 2010, Korean government spent 1.7% of its GDP for public pensions. In 2050, it is going to take up 12.5% of Korea’s GDP. Health care related spending is forecasted to double. From 4% (of total GDP) in 2010 to 9.2% in 2050.  Aging is also expected to reflect on availability of working-age population. In 2016, South Korea’s working-age population was at 3,704,000. These numbers will drop to 2,187,000 (41% decrease) by 2060. Sometime within the next several decades, the number of aged persons will outweigh the number of working-age people further complicating the demographic situation. Increased social sector spending will have a direct negative impact of South Korean defense budget.
Figure 3. Population ages 20-64 from 1950 to 2100. “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Volume II: Demographic Profiles” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2017).
Starting 2020, South Korean military is projected to experience draftee shortage if troop numbers remain at current levels. Population between ages 20-64 is going to decline from the peak of almost 34 million in 2020 to about 25 million in 2050 (Footnote UN). As outlined in new spending plan, defense related expenditures will grow by 6.9 % in 2018. Ministry of National Defense (MND) estimates that there will be a shortage of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers by 2023. The defense budget will only rise in coming years to substitute for the personnel shortage.
Assessment of Policy Options:
In-migration of foreign nationals can help to alleviate projected population shortage and increase fertility rate. South Korean government should consider a comprehensive immigration reform package to boost population numbers back to sustainable level. Falling marriage rate was identified as one of the main drivers of population decline. Today, increasing number of Koreans are preferring not to start families. It was observed that marriage and fertility levels are higher among South Koreans marrying foreign nationals. In 2000, 3.5% of all registered marriages in South Korea were arranged with foreigners. This number rose to almost 11% in 2009. If the number of foreign marriages stay at the current level, third of all South Korean children (1.67 million) will be of mixed descent by 2020. Encouraging mixed marriages through various policy incentives will result in positive long-term demographic benefits.
Immigrant worker visa program needs to be revised to possibly compensate for anticipated 1.2% annual workforce shortage during the next decade. Foreign workers should be employed on long-term basis and provided with adequate language and professional training. Training of temporary migrants should be facilitated and funded by the employer. South Korean government must offer policy level assistance to private parties seeking to compensate their workforce shortage by employment of migrant workers.
Service age adjustment:
Decreasing compulsory service age to 18 will double the pool of available draftees. In 2018, there will be an estimated of 335,000 young men turning 20, which is the half of current active duty service members. The number of males turning 18 and 19 in 2018 will equal to 625,000. Many countries have set conscription age below 20 including strong military powers such as Russia, Israel, and Egypt. Decreasing compulsory age to 18 will help to maintain current troop levels at least throughout the first half of this century at a very low cost.
Integration of autonomous robotic units.
Automation of labor in industrial, service, and military sectors can significantly decrease human labor dependence. South Korea has 531 industrial robots per 10,000 human workers, which is the highest number of industrial robots in the world. Robots can be widely utilized for broad range of tasks across many sectors where human labor is required. Transformation to autonomous labor units should be encouraged in private sector through various fiscal incentives such as tax cuts.
Figure 4. Photo of Sea Hunter. “”ACUTV Christening Ceremony in Portland, Oregon,” DARPA, November 4, 2016.
South Korean military should start heavily investing in autonomous high-tech security technologies. Introduction of unmanned vehicles and sentry systems have the potential to significantly lower manpower dependence in all branches of the armed forces. In 2016, U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched its completely autonomous 132 ft long vessel (Sea Hunter) fit for anti-submarine warfare operations. Sea Hunter vessel platform can be modified to be used for wide range of naval tasks including coastal zone patrol. Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) primarily uses Gumdoksuri A class vessels for coastal patrol operations. Each of commissioned and planned ROKN Gumdoksuri A vessels has a crew of 40 sailors. Replacement of 20 Gumdoksuri A class patrol vessels with autonomous ships such as Sea Hunter will lead to reduction of at least 800 servicemen. The actual scale of servicemen cutback will be much higher after considering decrease in number of personnel support corps members embedded to patrol vessel crews. Patrol vessel fleet automation model shows that widespread introduction of unmanned defense systems can lead to significant personnel reduction across all the branches of South Korean military.
Conscription of Female Population:
Extending compulsory service for females between ages 20-30 has the potential to eliminate the projected manpower shortage. New conscription policy should allow women to serve in any combat or non-combat role along with their male counterparts. Despite the widespread rhetoric, there is no solid evidence that compulsory service requirement for females negatively affects overall military readiness. Most notable countries with mandatory female military service requirements are Israel and DPRK. To put in contrast, eliminating gender restriction would add to the recruitment pool more than 3 million additional draftees in 2018. Under this policy option, South Korean military will be able to maintain current number of active duty troops throughout the end of this century.
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