Armed forces pay increase planned in proposed South Korean defense budget

Armed forces pay increase planned in proposed South Korean defense budget

Felix Kim

The men and women of South Korea’s Armed Forces can expect their incomes to rise, pending approval by the country’s National Assembly of a budget increase by the National Ministry of Defense (MND). The boost would mean the MND’s highest budget ever at nearly 44 trillion won (U.S. $39 billion), an 8.4 percent increase from 2017. The requested salary raises are long overdue, say Korean defense watchers. An increase in the total number of noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and commissioned officers (COs) has also been requested.

Currently, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the Korean Armed Forces for 21 to 24 months, depending on the service branch. A nonmilitary civil-service option also is available.

“The government has historically paid a very low salary for enlisted men, even below the minimum cost of living,” said Yang Uk, senior researcher at Korea Defense and Security Forum, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization. “Parents must typically share the burden of their living expenses.”

The budget plan submitted to the Finance Ministry calls for a sergeant to be paid 405,996 won (U.S. $350) per month — about 30 percent of the Korean minimum wage — up from the current 216,000 won (U.S. $187).

The salary increase remains controversial, Yang explained, adding that the new government of President Moon Jae-in intends to increase the level of pride that enlisted men take in performing their service and give them a greater sense of autonomy.

More NCOs and COs are necessary, according to Yang, because of a demographic shift that is reducing the number of conscripts. The proposed budget raises the number from 2,198 to 3,089.

“To fill the gap, more NCOs and COs can be a good solution,” said Yang, adding that because their terms of service are generally longer than conscripts, they better satisfy Korea’s need for professional soldiers and may eventually pave the way for an Army of volunteers rather than one of conscripts.

While the Korea Air and Missile Defense system and the so-called kill chain pre-emptive strike program, as well as other Armed Forces firepower, stand to benefit from the proposed budget with an 11.6 percent increase to 13.6 trillion won (U.S. $11.6 billion), Yang perceived that a salary increase could strain the defense budget at a time when new and upgraded defense hardware systems are needed to thwart menacing threats from North Korea.

“There is no opposition to the proposed increase in NCOs and COs,” he said. “However, there is much concern for a shortage of budget if the salaries go up twice or even three times more.”

The budget increase, specifically the salary hike, was one of Moon’s campaign pledges.

“These proposed changes are based on defense reform,” concluded Yang, adding that the core goal may be the transition from the current U.S.-Korea combined forces to a more native Korean defense force heavily focused on a strong defense capability to counter threats from the North.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.