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Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came

You might recognize today’s headline. It was a popular antiwar slogan in the Vietnam War era. There was even a movie that took the slogan as its title in 1970.


The history buffs and English majors out there might know it comes from a Carl Sandburg poem following World War I: “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”

Hope springs eternal. It seems that idealists have long dreamt of a world in which war was impossible because soldiers decided it was a raw deal and stayed home instead. 

Well, in the not-too-distant future, they may give a war on the Korean peninsula and nobody will come. But it won’t be because the Koreans suddenly embrace pacifism. It will be because they don’t have enough soldiers to fight. 

That sounds like hyperbole. 

It isn’t. 

In 1960, the average South Korean woman gave birth to six children. In 1980, it was nearly three. Most recent estimates now put the nation’s fertility rate at less than 0.8 children per woman. This next chart is not one any country wants to see.

A young, booming population helped to fuel South Korea’s economic miracle following the Korean War and propelled the country to the 13th largest economy in the world. Its living standards are on par with much of Western Europe, and it boasts some of the most recognizable corporate brands in the world, including Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. 

By most measurable statistics, South Korea is a rip-roaring success. 

But that all looks exceptionally fragile now. The country’s population is shrinking, as deaths outpace births by several tens of thousands per year. 

It’s also aging rapidly. By next year, an estimated 20% of the population will be 65 or older. That’s double the percentage of the globe’s 65+ population. Brazil and Peru’s older population only makes up 15% of their countries’ population. 

That’s one of five Koreans at traditional retirement age… with the number creeping higher by the year.

You can’t maintain an economy with a shrinking labor force. And, as a crusty middle-aged Gen Xer, it pains me to say that you also can’t maintain an innovative edge with an aging population. You need young people with fresh ideas to keep a society from ossifying. 

You also need young people to man an army. 

About that…

Writing for CNN, Gawon Bae laid out some unfortunate math:

To maintain current troops levels, the South Korean military needs to enlist or conscript 200,000 soldiers a year…

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.

If South Korea were to conscript every baby boy – literally 100% – it wouldn’t come close to maintaining their army at its current size. And if you conscripted all the baby girls, too, that would barely cover it. 

North Korea, South Korea’s rival and potential military foe, has a population problem of its own. Its birthrates are also below replacement level and falling. Most recent estimates put its fertility rate at 1.8 babies born per woman. 

The optimist might say that a mutual population implosion might force both Koreas to disarm and embrace. And hey, it would be great if that happened. 

But there’s also a second scenario… one I find a lot more plausible. Both Koreas – and South Korea in particular – will replace their soldiers with Terminator cyborgs. 

I’m joking. 

Sort of. 

I don’t think we’ll see robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger clones patrolling the demilitarized zone, as cool as that might be. But you can bet that South Korea will be depending far more heavily on technology to manage its national defense. 

All of this goes far beyond military spending and plays directly into two of the broad macro themes we’ve been covering at The Freeport Society

Deglobalization is already exacerbating a nasty worker shortage. The reshoring of Chinese manufacturing back to U.S. shores has been a driver of America’s tight labor market, and similar situations are unfolding virtually everywhere else in the world. 

As a result, there’s a virtual arms race in artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and robotics technology. Just look at the modern Amazon warehouse. You see a lot of machines… and not all that many people. Or consider my recent experience with ChatGPT, using AI to write a Christmas poem.

These technologies also play into another Freeport macro theme, exponential progress. From caveman days until just a couple hundred years ago, mankind’s technological development plodded along slowly. A blacksmith or carpenter from 1000 B.C. who somehow woke up to find himself in 1000 A.D. would have had little problem plying his trade.

But with the dawn of industrialization 300 years ago, mankind’s progress went parabolic. It’s only accelerated throughout the computer, internet, and mobile revolutions… 

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the AI Revolution… which may make possible the dream of a war where no one needs to come. At The Freeport Investor, we find investments that will enable our members to profit from the core trends defining this current Age of Chaos. Dollar debasement, deglobalization, exponential progress, and reshoring will also accelerate as we head toward the presidential election. Our friend, Louis Navellier, explains in this special presentation.

To life, liberty, and the pursuit of wealth.