South Korea's military problem.
Military reform includes those actions that improve the capability of the military to deter and/or destroy enemy forces that threaten the nation; everything else leads to military regression. Military reform includes improving the quality of the individual soldier, as he is the base element in any combat unit. The very essence of the military is the service members that constitute the force that operates the expensive weapons systems. It is people who make those weapons work effectively and it requires time for them to not just learn their military occupations, but to master them. An 18-month conscription system is nothing more than a revolving-door personnel system that results in regression, not reform.
Some in society view military reform as a means to reduce the national budget or as a vehicle to attain unrelated societal reforms. Mothers seem to view military reform as a catchword for eliminating or reducing the period of conscription service; a view championed by some politicians. It was only a little more than a decade ago that a South Korean president stated, "Young men have been going rotten in the military for years." That is astounding in a country whose northern boundary is defined by a military demarcation line, not a border, adjacent to a rogue nation considered by many as the most dangerous military threat in the world.
Keeping a trained team together is the hardest part of remaining combat ready. Americans serving in Korea learned this the hard way. The initial American ground combat formations to fight in the Korean War were tragically unprepared for war and the young soldiers sacrificed because of political decisions made regarding the manning, training and funding of ground forces between 1945 and 1950. The one-year tour in Korea, via individual replacement, ensured that none of the American combat units here could reach and maintain a high state of readiness for very long. Ironically, it was the Korean soldiers assigned to each U.S. Army unit (Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army, or KATUSAs) that provided continuity because they served for 36 months and saw American GIs come and go. The U.S. military has since learned its lessons from decades of war in the Middle East and now only trained American combat formations, not individuals, rotate to Korea, and are then replaced by similarly trained units. There are no new soldiers, and no untrained units.
The current 21-month conscription period for Korean soldiers is an impediment for South Korean army units in maintaining combat readiness. If the latest election promise is upheld to reduce enlistments to 18 months, the South Korean military's ability to fight and defend the country will be further degraded; hence military regression, not military reform. The result could be tragic for those young men and their country during a conflict with North Korea. The military problem is not that conscription is too long, it is that it is too short. Mothers and politicians, be careful what you ask for.