(ATTN: UPDATES with details on measures in last 4 paras; ADDS byline and photos)
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Nov. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea said Wednesday that it will reduce its number of troops to 500,000 by 2022 in the latest move to tackle looming demographic challenges as Asia's fourth-largest economy faces a rapidly aging population.
Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki also said South Korea will reform the country's military in a way that utilizes technologies, such as weaponized drones, reconnaissance satellites and unmanned aircraft.
The plan comes as the number of people required to serve in the military is projected to fall to 225,000 in 2025 before dropping to 161,000 in 2038, compared with 360,000 in 2016.
In 2018, South Korea had 599,000 troops, according to the 2018 defense white paper released in January. In comparison, the paper put the number of North Korea's active-duty personnel at 1.28 million.
The move comes as South Korea is going through a dramatic demographic transition.
Statistics Korea forecast that the country's population is likely to reach 39 million in 2067, sharply down from an estimated 51.7 million in 2019.
Last year, South Korea's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime -- hit a record low of 0.98, much lower than the replacement level of 2.1 that would keep South Korea's population stable at 51 million.
In comparison, the total fertility rate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 36 mostly rich nations, stood at 1.65 on average.
The government plans to reduce the number of sergeants, lieutenants while increasing the number of captains and sergeant first classes and first sergeants.
The government plans to raise the proportion of women serving as officers and noncommissioned officers to 8.8 percent from the current 6.2 percent.
Currently, all able-bodied South Korean men must carry out compulsory military service for about two years in a country that faces North Korea across a heavily fortified border.
The government is also considering mandating that naturalized South Koreans serve in the military. Currently, naturalized South Koreans can join the military, if they choose.
The annual number of foreigners being naturalized has exceeded 10,000 in recent years, with 11,270 in 2013, 10,924 in 2015 and 10,086 in 2017, according to government data.
The government said it will begin consultations with relevant ministries next year as part of efforts to recalculate the number of teachers in training to deal with the looming shortage of children attending schools.
The number of people aged from 6 to 17 is projected to fall to 4.02 million in 2040 from 5.82 million in 2017.
The number of births in South Korea fell to 326,822 in 2018 from a record high of 1 million in 1970, according to the statistics agency.
The decline in childbirths comes as more young South Koreans are opting to distance themselves from life's three major milestones -- dating, marriage and having children -- because they cannot find decent jobs amid a prolonged economic slowdown.
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