By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- The defense ministry said Thursday it will consider gradually shortening the mandatory military service by three months to 18 months, as President-elect Park Geun-hye made the term reduction pledge during her campaign.
The military service period has already been cut from 24 months to 21 months under the Lee Myung-bak administration, but the issue again resurfaced during the presidential campaign as Park of the ruling Saenuri Party promised an additional cut of three months in accordance with the government's original long-term plan.
Following Park's victory, the defense ministry said officials will study how to put her pledge into practice in a way that prevents any security vacuum.
"The government will review measures to gradually reduce (the term)," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. "If the service period is immediately reduced to 18 months from 21 months, the military will face a shortage of servicemen."
According to senior officials, the ministry estimated a one month reduction is equivalent to cutting 10,000 soldiers, expecting the 18-month term implementation would cause a shortage of over 60,000 servicemen by 2025.
Among the possible alternatives considered in the past were recruiting more non-commissioned officers and expanding the number of paid soldiers.
The initial plan to gradually reduce the military service from two years to 18 months starting from 2014 was approved by the liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun in a bid to increase the nation's labor pool amid a dwindling population.
All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve in the 650,000-man military to deter the 1.2 million-strong troops in North Korea, along with 28,500 American soldiers stationed in the nation.
In February 2011, the Lee Myung-bak administration froze the plan at 21 months citing growing security threats from North Korea, following a series of deadly attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
Additionally, the ministry said it is reviewing Park's pledge that calls for doubling the private soldiers' monthly pay from 96,000 won (US$90) to about 200,000 won in the next three years, which would cost about 500 billion won of the budget.
Soldiers and their parents have long demanded a pay raise for their service because the current amount is less than three days of wages, when assuming an employee works eight hours a day at a minimum hourly wage set at 4,580 won.
In her first public speech after the election win, Park, a daughter of general-turned-president Park Chung-hee who was assassinated by his intelligence aide, vowed to strengthen national defense and maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula.
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