Too old to wage war
By Jason Lim
While tragic and unwarranted, wars provide a glimpse into the world that we are living in. Here are a few interesting observations from the ongoing war in Ukraine that have relevance for Korea.
One, in a Twitter thread, Kamil Galeev, who is the Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Wilson Center, posed that Russia no longer has the manpower to fight a protracted war, as it was able to do in early 20th century. His theory posits that Russia used to have an endless supply of available young men who were conscripted or otherwise forced to fight in a war. However, industrialization and urbanization have transformed Russia into a low-fertility, depopulating country that no longer has the endless supply of young men it once did, leaving it less able to carry out any war. Therefore, the Russian army is more and more composed of the poor, rural and non-Russians to fill its ranks. “It’s an army of minorities and provincial poor,” he says.
What does this observation mean to Korea with its high urbanization, lowest fertility rate in the world and a quickly rising median age?
South Korea has long stabilized its urbanization rate of between 81 and 82 percent, which is a precursor to a low birth rate in other industrialized countries. In 2021, Korea’s total fertility rate, which is the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime, came to 0.81 last year, down from 0.84 the previous year. It’s the lowest of all the OECD countries, which average a 1.61 fertility rate. In 2020, Korea experienced its first natural population decline as deaths outpaced births. At the same time, the median age in Korea in 2020 was 43.7 years old, which is expected to rise to 56.5 by 2050. In short, South Korea is a rapidly depopulating country being filled with older people.
Surprisingly, the story is only slightly better for North Korea. While the fertility rate in the North is 1.9, keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is what’s needed for any country to maintain its population. This situation means that North Korea will also start losing people after 2040. North Korea is no spring chicken either, with its median age at 35.3 years old. To boot, its urbanization rate is also climbing above 60%, which means that the fertility rate will continue to go down.
If the Koreas were to go to war, then they will be killing its most valuable resource ― young people ― and end up fighting the war with an army filled with old men vs. older men. Unless there is some sort of technological force amplifier that can make up for unfavorable demographics, the two Koreas aren’t going to war anytime soon, especially an expansionist one that needs boots on the ground to occupy some real estate. Reunification by force seems to be an option that is becoming less viable with every passing year.
Another interesting observation in this Russia-Ukraine war is the increasing role that private sector companies are playing in the execution of the war. While the U.S. and the West are not directly involved in the shooting war, they have certainly been busy, establishing a series of punishing economic sanctions against Russia and its elite inner circle. Also, Elon Musk made news in the beginning of the war by activating his company, SpaceX, satellite internet service in Ukraine in response to an appeal, via Twitter, by the Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation.
Previously, wars were state to state affairs, with all the various thrusts ― military, economic or otherwise ― executed by one nation upon another. With this one happening in the middle of Europe, it seems that the execution of a war has metastasized to private actors with a footprint large enough to contribute at a scale that rivals or exceeds those of nation states.
Traditional critical infrastructure, such as power plants, dams, bridges and such, might still need kinetic attacks to destroy and disrupt. However, equally important infrastructure, such as the internet, social media, supply chains of various kinds and even fast-food franchises that have enormous reach and concrete bearing on a population’s viability, are now owned by the private sector. In modern warfare, it’s not an exaggeration to say that an economic blockade must be a public-private partnership (PPP) in order to succeed.
It’s actually more than PPPs that participate in modern warfare. Just as social media allowed individuals without institutional or industry support to become celebrated content creators, individuals ― working alone or in like-minded groups ― now have the power to participate actively in the execution of a war. In recent days, Anonymous, a decentralized international activist movement known for its various cyberattacks against several governments, allegedly took down many of Russia’s official websites through coordinated cyberattacks on its internet infrastructure.
Is what’s happening in Ukraine foreshadowing the nature of any future war?
In Korea, it could be that the CEOs of Kakao, Naver, Samsung, LG and other conglomerates that own key pieces of critical infrastructure, would have to be in the room where big decisions are made.
Jason Lim (email@example.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.