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

ROK training

As the war in Ukraine unfolds, some countries have started to take a closer look at the readiness of their military reserve forces, and what they are finding under the hood has given some a cause for concern. In the case of South Korea, recent budget allocation trends that emphasize fourth industrial revolution initiatives and omnidirectional national defense strategies coincide with low levels of funding for military reserve forces, canceled or substandard training events, rising rates of dissatisfaction for military service, and declining levels of support and respect for military service among the South Korean public. This is a recipe for disaster should South Korea enter a conventional conflict with North Korea.

Although efforts to improve South Korea’s military reserve forces have come in fits and starts, as seen with the creation of Mobilization Forces Command in 2018, South Korea continues to emphasize fourth-generation defense initiatives at the expense of training and equipping its mostly conscript army. While new fleets of warships and aircraft may create the illusion of readiness and require little sacrifice from the public other than a tax burden, nurturing an effective reserve force takes years and requires sacrifices both from the public and from individual reservists that for some leaders has become politically unpalatable.



The Threat

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests garner the most attention these days, one of the lesser publicized threats posed by North Korea are its asymmetric warfare capabilities, and the potential that still exists for a “blitzkrieg” of South Korea using hybrid and guerrilla warfare. Although North Korea has always employed asymmetric capabilities against the South Korean-U.S. alliance, the past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in the level of importance accorded to those capabilities. For example, shortly after his rise to power, Kim Jong-un directed his military to develop a new war plan to seize the entire peninsula in seven days using asymmetric warfare. It is a strategy partly created out of necessity. As North Korea’s conventional force capability deteriorated over the past two decades, the North Korean regime increasingly emphasized asymmetric warfare capabilities such as nuclear weapons, short-range ballistic missiles, special operations forces, and the development of insertion platforms such as hovercraft and submarines.

How ready South Korea is to face this sort of threat leaves room for debate, but if history is any guide, the results are not reassuring.

Born out of near disaster, the historical impetus for the creation of a large South Korean military reserve force came in the wake of 1968 Blue House raid when North Korean commandos successfully infiltrated deep into South Korea and were able to launch an attack on the president’s residence in the center of Seoul. Despite not achieving their goal of assassinating President Park Chung-hee, the attackers killed 26 — including four American soldiers who died attempting to block the North Koreans from escaping back to North Korea — and wounded another 66. One North Korean commando escaped.

Following the incident, Park stated, “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 took place across the country, including 10,000 women who volunteered to serve in the local reserve forces. The fact that North Korean forces were able to so adeptly infiltrate South Korea alarmed both Seoul and Washington and helped galvanize support for a large and responsive South Korean reserve force.

Since then, South Korean defense strategy has employed its reserve forces in two ways. The first is through mobilization divisions and individual reservists who support the active-duty divisions. The second function calls for homeland reserve divisions to support rear-area operations and homeland defense. These are the forces most likely to be used to counter North Korean special forces or asymmetric threats throughout the rear area.

Is the South Korean Army Reserve Ready?

Although the South Korean army reserve is currently made up of reserve divisions for rear-area operations and mobilization divisions in support of the active-duty force, the bulk of Korea’s 2.7 million army reservists are individual riflemen who serve as replacements. During peacetime, the South Korean army’s divisions include around 20 percent reservists at the squad level and are only authorized three days of training per year. Considering the time required by the U.S. Army Reserve to mobilize and train-up for deployment, three days is barely enough time to get through all administrative tasks, let alone respond to a unanticipated North Korean rear-area incursion.

Based on the authors’ discussions with numerous retired South Korean army officers, Seoul doesn’t value its reserve forces, and in some cases, reserve units are still using World War II-era equipment. With only three training days per year for reservists, very little is accomplished other than accountability, administrative tasks, and basic qualification. Ultimately, a lack of funding and focus drives a minimalist approach to training and equipping the army reserve. Coupled with a decrease in South Korean-U.S. combined training exercises since mid-2018, overall reserve and active-duty capabilities have degraded.

As of 2021, the South Korean reserve forces received approximately 0.44 percent of the national defense budget. Although this was an increase from 0.31 percent in 2018, it is still far short of the increase to 1 percent promised by the administration of President Moon Jae-in. According to one analyst, poor manning and few resources have led to a situation in which South Korean Mobilization Forces Command “cannot effectively fulfill the task as a control tower.”

A lack of funding and the limited number of training days per year result in an inability to train on fundamental soldier skills such as “shoot, move, communicate” — let alone find opportunities to conduct large-scale training events that might prepare the reserve divisions to counter North Korea’s 200,000+ special forces that are expected to flood South Korea’s rear area during contingency. Unlike most modern reserve systems employed by militaries around the world that have embraced interoperability between their reserve and active components, South Korea still sees them as separate and distinct. Lack of training, and the effect it has on unit cohesion, is compounded by a post-industrial South Korean society that is not only shrinking, but increasingly concentrated in the capital city of Seoul, which now accounts for over 50 percent of South Korea’s population.

This has implications on mobilization reaction times for individual reservists who may hail from a rural area and be assigned to that region’s mobilization center, but who live and work on the other side of the country. Considering the likely use of cyber operations to disrupt information technology networks to delay mobilization notification and reaction times, the likelihood of reservists having the inclination and means to report within the needed timeframe is highly questionable, and in turn impacts the ability to effectively counter North Korean special-forces activities in the more rural and underpopulated regions south of Seoul. With nearly all South Korea’s active-duty formations and over half of its population located either in or north of Seoul, the rear area is increasingly looking vulnerable to just such an incursion. The impact of just such an incursion could be devastating, especially if those reservists assigned to homeland reserve divisions are unable — or unwilling — to report for duty. This is exactly what happened in 1996 during the Gangneung submarine infiltration incident.

On Sept. 18, 1996, a North Korean Sang-O-class submarine ran aground off the coast of South Korea while returning to pick up several spies inserted to gather intelligence on a nearby airbase. Upon abandoning the submarine, the North Korean reconnaissance bureau soldiers executed the crew of the ship and went ashore to make their way home via land routes. Over the course of the operation, approximately 13,000 South Korean reserve troops were used in conjunction with South Korean active-duty forces. By the end of a manhunt that lasted nearly two months, 12 South Korean military and four civilian personnel had been killed, with another 27 wounded. Among these were one reserve soldier and a police officer. Of the 26 North Koreans, 11 of the submarine crew were likely executed by one of their own as punishment for the accidental grounding, , 13 by the South Korean army, and one was captured. As in the 1968 Blue House raid, one North Korean commando is believed to have escaped.

The lessons from the Gangneung incident should give pause to military planners in Seoul as to the readiness of South Korea’s reserve forces. An after-action review with 700 reserve soldiers showed that 84 percent of respondents didn’t know their mobilization procedures, and 81 percent said that they didn’t know which unit they should go to after receiving the call-up order. In addition, only 28 percent said that they would respond immediately upon receipt of another call-up order. According to one report by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997, only 34 percent of reserve forces responded and mobilized on the first day of their call-up, and there were reports of fratricide, instances of soldiers going AWOL, and consumption of alcohol while on duty. Some units went so far as to not even distribute ammunition to their reservists. The North Korean soldiers took note of the poor tactics and training of the South Korean military during the operation: Throughout their escape, they maintained detailed journal entries in which they made fun of the South Korean military, their training, and how easy it was to escape.

While the 1968 Blue House raid galvanized support for the creation of a responsive and broad-based South Korean army reserve, the 1996 submarine infiltration embarrassment appears to have done the exact opposite. Instead, South Korea’s defense strategy went down the path of high-tech acquisitions and a focus on its navy and air force, with the nation now on track to be the largest spender on military research and development as proportion of its overall defense budget.

Korea has changed a lot since 1996, and not in the ways that would have led to significant improvements to its large reserve force 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 always tricky, but the declining levels of public support for military service, coupled with historical precedent and current low levels of budget apportionment for training and equipping the reserves, would likely result in similar, if not worse, results. Looming over these fundamental concerns for readiness is South Korea’s demographic time bomb, which is expected to dramatically impact the size of the military. One report from the South Korean Ministry of National Defense estimates that the pool of draftees will likely “decline by half over the next two decades” and has led the military to explore the possibility of expanding the draft to include women.

Ultimately, the impact of insufficient funding impacts individual reserve soldier efficacy. This creates a vicious cycle that negatively impacts perceptions of military service among South Korea’s post-industrial population.

Declining Levels of Public Support

Recent polling done in Korea gives some insight into how South Korean society views military service, and the results are not reassuring. According to the Korean Woman’s Development Institute, 82 percent of men in their 20s agree with the statement that military service should be avoided, while a poll of high-school students in Busan found that only 27 percent said that military service was “natural and honorable.” These sentiments are also reflected in a 2015 Military Manpower Administration study of over 4,000 servicemen, in which in 57 percent of respondents said that “their pride has not grown” or that “they take not much pride” in military service. These negative perceptions manifest in such tragedies as the  South Korean reserve training incident at a shooting range in 2015, when a soldier killed two reservists and wounded two others before taking his own life. These numbers should alarm the political-military leadership of South Korea, especially as research into the importance of the will to fight as a critical component of military capability continues to evolve. Regrettably, declining levels of support among young South Koreans for public service is beginning to extend beyond the military, as evidenced by declining competition ratios for South Korea’s much-feared civil service exam.

The studies above address the increasingly negative trend among South Korean perceptions of military service, and now public service writ large. For a nation that faces such a potent and proximate enemy in North Korea, these sentiments impact overall military readiness. Constituting nearly 2.7 million personnel in South Korea, the South Korean army reserve is uniquely positioned to influence these perceptions, and potentially reverse them if South Korean defense policy supports it sufficiently. Scholars from Israel have correctly pointed out that reserve forces serve as a bridge between a nation’s military and its civil society and help transmit values between the two communities and limit undesirable divergences. Research in Israel has also shown that despite criticism from their active-duty peers, reserve forces serve as a critical component of a legitimate military due to the connection reserve-force personnel have with the wider civilian population.

Symbolic and Material Rewards

As the population of South Korea continues to decline, the use of symbolic and material rewards to attract quality talent into the military will become increasingly important. This is especially true if South Korea goes down the path of embracing a large all-volunteer army at the expense of conscription, much like Taiwan. A good first step might be to bring back the 1999 points rewards system. While previously deemed unconstitutional since it gave military men an advantage in the civilian workplace, it has recently gained support from several conservative lawmakers and retired army generals.

Although some writing exists on how South Korea can learn from the U.S. Army Reserve, a more broad-based approach might be beneficial. The example of Singapore with its cadre-conscript model produces good results and might be something South Korea can adopt in order to strike a balance between its rising socio-economic status and military readiness. South Korea may even want to explore the creation of territorial forces, an approach some advocate for Taiwanese defense.

In addition, maybe it is time for the South Korean Army Reserve to become a serious conversation for the South Korean-U.S. alliance in terms of combined training events and use of American forces to help with training South Korean reserve units. For example, the addition of a rotational light infantry brigade in a “train, advise, assist” capacity to the South Korean army reserve’s homeland divisions might help improve the morale of reservists through visible interaction with the American military and by learning valuable skills on combating asymmetric threats.

If done right, and if the political-military leadership of South Korea has the will, the South Korean army reserve can potentially serve as a vehicle for creating a value proposition with the South Korean public on the importance of national security and national service. Of greater impact, it may even help reverse declining levels of public support for military service.

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, taught us anything, it’s that a nation’s capacity to fight and win wars is predicated on the quality of its soldiers, not simply the gear they carry or the alliance partner they have in their corner. For large, modern militaries such as South Korea and Taiwan, this capability resides with the quality of available national manpower they can draw upon in times of war — namely, their military 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 in the United States Army Reserve, he has over 17 years of experience serving with the United States military in South Korea and Iraq. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in international 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 currently the head of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Leadership for the Military at Open Cyber University of Korea.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or the South Korean government.

Image: Republic of Korea Armed Forces