Korea’s Mandatory Military Service

I’m often asked about the threat of war with North Korea. To be honest, it’s not something I give much attention to these days. This is mainly because I am well aware of the situation north of the border concerning the physical readiness of their troops and the large number of boots on South Korean soil. The soldiers in South Korea are not only made up of US personnel, but young men and women who complete a mandatory service period in the Korean Military branches.

korean mandatory military service

Photo Credit: United States Navy, image is public domain.

Mandatory Military Service

In an age where conflict still exists across the globe, the majority of developed nations rely on a purely volunteer mobilized army. The days of worrying about getting a letter in the mail stating that you’ve drafted are long gone. However, in some 24 countries around the globe, mandatory service is still required to some degree. For example in the Philippines, training is conducted during the last year of high school. Those opting out of the service are unable to graduate. While the Citizen’s Advancement Training or CAT previously only included military skills, the program has been expanded. Once the trainees graduate, the may continue in an optional program during their collegiate years. Conscription performed in Israel, the only country to require mandatory service of both men and women, mandates men serve one year more than women, yet provides largely equal training to both sexes.

South Korea’s mandatory military conscription requires all men to serve for roughly 21 months. Failing to do so can result in imprisonment. This was seen in 2011 when K-Pop singer MC Mong was sentenced to 6 months in jail for allegedly pulling his molars to avoid service (his sentence was suspended). Others have gone so far as to obtain citizenship or residency in other countries; therefore, avoiding military duty. There are other ways to get out of service… say winning the Bronze Medal over Japan in the 2012 London Games. Those that do serve are graded on a scale from 1-10. Receiving a grade of 5 or lower means that one is physically unable to serve. A grade of 4, are given special service assignments. Men rating 1-3 serve to protect the nation.

What Do Korean Students Think of Military Service?

To tackle this issue, I decided to pose the question in class, since Kim Doo-gwan (who is attempting to run for Korea’s upcoming Presidential election) has proposed doing away with conscription and moving towards an all volunteer military. This is what they had to say:

Most had a positive outlook on the service, mainly because they wanted the extra physical training and exposure to organizational skills. This was even in light of the sometimes harsh conditions and long hours. Complaints mainly surrounded the lack of personal freedoms during the service period, such as short hair and lack of fashionable clothing. The men I spoke to also said it was a source of pride and that it was their job to serve, to protect the nation. They made it clear that the nation was still at war with North Korea, and they were a little worried that history would repeat itself.

When the issue of mandating women to also serve, all laughed. The overall opinion shared by multiple classes was females are too weak to be in the military. When it was pointed out that many countries have female soldiers, the students still felt Korean women didn’t have what it would take to complete the service period. That view wasn’t only from the men… but from the women, too. None wanted to serve and protect their nation. All wanted to see the men serve and become fitter. In fact, some female students expressed delight when thinking about their boyfriends going away.

While some of the answers I expected, many surprised me. If you’ve served in the military, I’d love to hear about your experiences.