South Korea’s military has a new enemy: Population math

South Korean marines take part in the "Ssangyong 2023 Exercise" joint landing operation by US and South Korean Marines in the south-eastern port of Pohang on March 29, 2023. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
South Korean marines take part in the “Ssangyong 2023 Exercise” joint landing operation by US and South Korean Marines in the south-eastern port of Pohang on March 29, 2023.Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty ImagesSeoul, South KoreaCNN — 
South Korea, with the world’s lowest birth rate, may soon find itself without enough troops to keep its military fully staffed as it deals with new threats in an increasingly tense Western Pacific region, analysts say.Always wary of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, South Korea keeps an active-duty force of about half a million troops. But with a birth rate of only 0.78 children per woman over a lifetime, the math might be South Korea’s biggest enemy at the moment, and experts say it has no choice but to downsize its forces.“With our current birth rate, the future is predetermined. Downsizing of the force will be inevitable,” said Choi Byung-ook, a national security professor at Sangmyung University.
To maintain current troops levels, the South Korean military needs to enlist or conscript 200,000 soldiers a year, he said.But in 2022, fewer than 250,000 babies were born. Assuming about a 50-50 male-female split, that means in 20 years, when those children are of the age to join the military, only about 125,000 men will be available for the 200,000 spots needed.Women are not conscripted in South Korea, and volunteer females accounted for only 3.6% of the current Korean military, according to Defense Ministry figures.
And the annual number of newborns is only forecasted to drop further, to 220,000 in 2025 and 160,000 in 2072, according to Statistics Korea.Preparing for two decadesWhile South Korea’s declining birth rate has been making headlines in recent years, it’s a trend the military had seen coming and prepared for.In the early 2000s, Seoul voluntarily decided to reduce the number of active soldiers from 674,000 in 2006 to 500,000 by 2020, based on “the premise that the threat from North Korea would gradually diminish,” and to promote a smaller but more elite military force, according to a 2022 defense white paper.South Korea’s military has reached that goal, decreasing troop size by 27.6% in two decades, from 2002 to 2022.But the premise that the threat from North Korea would diminish has proven false.Kim Jong Un, the third consecutive member of his family dynasty to rule, came to power in Pyongyang in 2011. Despite brief lulls while he negotiated with South Korea and the United States to reduce tensions, he has pushed a massive buildup in the North Korean military, especially in its ballistic missile programs.Following North Korea’s test of its fifth intercontinental ballistic missile this year, Kim warned that his country would not “hesitate” to conduct a nuclear attack when the enemy provokes with its nuclear weapons, referring to the deployment of US nuclear-capable weapons platforms inand around the Korean Peninsula, state-media KCNA reported earlier this month.But if Kim were to attack across the 38th parallel, which divided North and South Korea after the 1953 armistice halting the Korean War, it’s the South Korean military that would bear the biggest defense burden.Turning to techExperts say South Korea must look at science to counter that North Korean threat and turn a manpower crisis into a technology transformation.“Korean defense authorities have had this longstanding policy that we would go from a manpower-centric military to a technology-oriented military,” said Chun In-bum, a former lieutenant general in the South Korean Army.In 2005, South Korea’s Defense Ministry released a plan to develop its military into a science-technology-centric force by 2020, but progress has been scant.“Although the military was trying to make the transition, there was no urge, because (with) South Korea’s conscripts … there were plenty of human resources,” Choi said.But Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown the world that on the modern battlefield, sheer troop numbers aren’t enough. Of the 360,000 soldiers that made up Russia’s pre-invasion ground force, including contract and conscript personnel, Moscow has lost 315,000 on the battlefield, according to a recent US Defense Department assessment.Ukraine’s use of drones and high-tech weapons supplied by Western partners have taken a deadly toll on Moscow’s greater force numbers.South Korea has been putting an emphasis on integrating new technologies into its fighting units.The Defense Ministry last year said it would make a phased transition to an AI-based manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) combat system, and introduced the Army TIGER brigade — a so-called “future unit” — which utilizes both manpower and unmanned equipment to carry out missions.South Korea has also been developing unmanned military equipment, including the medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (MUAV) and unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV).Experts say troops are indispensableBut Chun, the former South Korean general, says technology is not a panacea.For instance, it takes manpower to take and hold territory. And it takes well-trained and educated people to run and oversee artificial intelligence (AI) systems on the battlefield.“It’s not going to be enough, and no matter how we try,” Chun said of technology. “It’s going to help, but it will not solve the problem that we lack people.”Both he and Choi have ideas on how to get more out of a smaller military force.For one, leverage of the conscription system and the reserve component that it yields, Chun said.“We need to revamp our mobilization system, where we’ll be able to tap into the large number of reserve population that we have,” Chun said.After South Korean men finish their 18 to 21 months of mandatory military service, they become reservists for eight years. During this time, they get called into assigned units once a year to remind them of their positions and duties. And after that, they are subject to participate in civil defense training every year until the age of 40.
South Korean Marines look inland after a beach landing rehearsal for Exercise Ssang Yong on March 28 in Pohang, South Korea.South Korean Marines look inland after a beach landing rehearsal for Exercise Ssang Yong on March 28 in Pohang, South Korea.Brad Lendon/CNN
The system now gives South Korea 3.1 million reserve troops.Reservists must attend a two-night, three-day training session every year.One ongoing pilot system is to have a select number of those reservists train for 180 days a year, to reinforce their skills.Another option is increasing the number of professional cadres – commissioned, warrant and non-commissioned officers – all of whom are volunteers, serving longer terms, during which they would become well-versed in operating advanced weapons “to prevent a gap in combat capability despite the reduction of standing forces,” according to the 2022 white paper.The military has been increasing the ratio of cadres among its total force from 31.6% in 2017 to 40.2% in 2022, according to the Defense Ministry. A further rise to 40.5% by 2027 is planned, it said.A recruitment problemOne problem with this plan: The population isn’t buying in.The number of applicants for commissioned officer positions has fallen over the years, from about 30,000 in 2018 to 19,000 in 2022, according to Defense Ministry data.“The military is having a huge difficulty in securing outstanding entry-level professional cadres who would, in 10, 20 years, form an outstanding officer corps,” Choi said, pointing out that insufficient financial and social benefits for cadres are the main reason behind falling application rates.And what about turning to women, even in a military with conscription?Israel has conscription and 40% of its conscripted force is female, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. In the all-volunteer US and Canadian armed forces, more than 16% of the troops are women.Choi said conscripting women could solve South Korea’s problem, but he said there are too many impediments to it in Korea’s traditionally patriarchal society. And even if those are overcome, it could simply be too expensive.“There are various complex factors like social costs and women giving birth. So, I think the cost [in need] would be much higher than the actual profit,” he said.But Chun thinks attracting women volunteers is doable if the pay is attractive enough.“If a solder is paid $2,000 [per month], that’s a legitimate job. So, a woman would say, well I want to be able to have that job for $2,000. Because for the same job, she’d probably be paid $1,500 in the outside world,” he said.For its part, the Defense Ministry says increasing the number of women who serve is a possibility among other ideas.But there are no timelines for changes and time may be something South Korea doesn’t have much of.Earlier this month, Statistics Korea reported that the record low birth rate is expected to drop even further in the next two years, to 0.65 births per woman in 2025.

Huge waves to hit California coast for third day, bringing flooding and life-threatening conditions

A surfer catches some air off a wave at Mavericks Beach near Half Moon Bay, California, U.S., December 28, 2023. REUTERS/Nathan Frandino     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A surfer catches some air off a wave at Mavericks Beach near Half Moon Bay, California, on December 28, 2023.Nathan Frandino/ReutersCNN — 

Massive waves and coastal flooding are wreaking havoc for a third day in many of California’s coastal communities, where extreme conditions have forced water rescues, washed away cars and injured a handful of enthralled onlookers.

The unusually large surf – often towering over 20 feet – has prompted beach closures along the California coast and sent damaging deluges of water into several beachside streets, homes and businesses.

In hard-hit Ventura County, waves have surged over seawalls and carried parked cars down the street and into significant intersections, blocking first responders’ paths, fire captain Brian McGrath told CNN affiliate TNLA. Flooding in a local hotel also caused damage in all of its ground-floor rooms, he said.

High water and dangerous rip currents have been besieging much of the West coast from southern California to Oregon since Thursday, caused by a series of powerful storms that have been making their way ashore from the Pacific Ocean.

Beachgoers watch as huge surf pounds the coast, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Dec. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Beachgoers watch as huge surf pounds the coast in Manhattan Beach, California on December 28, 2023.Richard Vogel/AP

Though hazards will lessen for Northern Californians on Saturday, coastal areas of central and Southern California will keep being battered by extreme surf, which could reach about 25 feet in impacted areas.

Some waves slamming into California’s Bay Area may peak at 40 feet – about the size of a telephone pole – and others are expected to hit 28 to 33 feet.

Southern Oregon’s coast is also set to be buffeted with strong surf and high winds early Saturday. High surf warnings are in effect in the region through Saturday morning as waves between 20 and 25 feet are expected.

Curious onlookers and excited surfers have been enthralled by the spectacular surf, but local officials are urging people to stay out of the water and away from the beaches due to potentially life-threatening conditions.

“Beaches, piers, vulnerable harbors should NOT be considered safe,” the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said.

Ventura County officials have closed all beaches through New Years Eve due to the 15- to 20-foot waves set to slam into the coast through Saturday evening. The county, along with Hermosa, Manhattan and Palos Verdes beaches, face the most extreme surf on Saturday and are at risk for significant coastal flooding.

“We know the waves look impressive and we understand the drive to want to come here,” McGrath told TNLA Friday. “But we’re asking people to stay away and stay out of the area for their safety and for ours.”

Ventura first responders rescued about 10 people on Friday “who thought they were able to navigate that high surf,” the fire captain said. Two beachgoers also helped pull a struggling lifeguard out of the water as the lifeguard was trying to get back to shore after rescuing a person near the pier, firefighter Andy VanSciver told CNN.

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During the first round of severe surf on Thursday, nearly 20 people were swept away by a wave that slammed into a beach barrier lined with onlookers in Ventura Beach’s Pierpont area, officials said. Eight injured people were taken to the hospital.

“It was terrifying and apocalyptic,” said Colin Hoag, who captured a video of people scrambling to escape as the towering wave crashed over the barrier. Quickly moving seawater swept some people off their feet and pummeled cars as drivers tried to speed away.

“People were yelling and screaming. I ran as fast as I could,” Hoag said.

One of the storms fueling the waves will also bring rain and wind to California through Saturday.

By Saturday morning, the rain will shift inland and across Southern California before weakening over the Rocky Mountains on Sunday.

Further inland, a wintry mix will fall on areas of central and eastern California. More than a foot of snow is possible over high elevation crests and peaks and between 6 to 12 inches is expected in lower elevation mountain areas.