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.


  • Thelegittantei

    I’d rather be sexist and say that girls shouldn’t go to the military. Because honestly if I lived in Korea I’d totally not want go.

  • http://lovingkorean.wordpress.com/ Boyfriend in Korea (Oegukeen)

    I am so
    relieved that my boyfriend finished his Korean military service before I met

    As a woman, if I lived in Korea, I would rather that women serve as well. I
    really wouldn’t want to serve and would rather spend my time getting more
    education or working BUT I would feel uncomfortable knowing my male friends or
    brothers had to do it and I wouldn’t. I also feel any inequality brings more
    inequality. So in the long run it would probably be better for me.

    Of course, I say all this without any real in-depth knowledge, just off the top of my head.

    • qiranger

      I would also like to see women get the chance to serve under the compulsory guidelines. I simply think it would go a long way to establish gender equality in Korea. However, as I mentioned above, none of my students agreed with that.

      • http://lovingkorean.wordpress.com/ Oegukeen – Boyfriend in Korea

        I guess young people usually only see immediate benefit.

  • John

    This is pretty false. Guys certainly don’t want to go away for almost two years at the sake of their education or careers. And plenty of girls leave their boyfriends once they go to the military. Or they won’t even consider them until after they’ve done their service.

    • qiranger

      What do you mean by false?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=608249423 Lindsay He

        maybe not false but… the fact that you asked these questions as their teacher in class i assume, hinders the response …

        my bf is korean and most of my guy friends are too, none of them want to serve in the military. Maybe because i am their peer they respond to me differently

        • qiranger

          It may also be the kind of student and individual spoken to. Over the past two years, I have had similar experiences with other student at this institution.

        • http://lovingkorean.com/ Oegukeen – from Loving Korean

          My boyfriend has many complaints and issues with the military service and he’s not happy that he lost 2 years of his life on it.
          But he had the opportunity to receive 5th rank and not have to do it, and he still chose to serve. And he would do it again if he went back in time even with the knowledge he has now.

  • Mirene

    Interesting indeed! I will agree also with some of the comments made below! I believe that maybe it’s not that consensual as this young students talked about it, in such an honorable way.
    I believe that most of young Korean men would prefer avoid military service because they might, maybe, consider it as a burden for their education, personal and professional life! I remembered I saw once a reportage where young Koreans were talking about North Korea, the probability of a war and military service. I remembered that they weren’t so much concerned about it and I didn’t have this feeling that they had this proud feeling of doing military service! That’s why I asked you if, maybe, they don’t feel pressured by the Korean public opinion and their family too, regarding this matter.

    Sorry for my English buy that’s why also I like your blog and Facebook page Steve, besides the great quality of the contents, you challenge me also to improve my English writing skills in order to express clearly my ideas and opinions! I took almost 20 minutes to write this!^^ I wish I could be more fluent! ;)

    • qiranger

      Thoughts vary for sure. Glad I can help inspire you to improve your English. Are you subscribed to the podcast? That might be helpful as well since you can listen on the go if you need to.

      • Mirene

        No I wasn’t! Done! thank you! Sure it can help too!

  • YU

    Well, I was born and raised in Korea until I came to college in the US. So most of my friends are Korean but I don’t think I have never met anyone who actually wanted to do the military service and neither do I. When Korean boys between the age of 21-23 meet and talk, a significant portion of what they talk about is dedicated to how much they hate going to the military. I am of course aware of the presence of 30 million people that hate us(south Koreans) and I do think that serving for/protecting my country is necessary. But frankly, who would want to waste two years of their early 20s? You could get killed(couple hundred draftees die every year), beat up and you have to eat crappy food. You don’t get paid and unlike in the US, military experience as a draftee in Korea is not considered as work experience and veterans don’t get any special treatment of any kind anywhere unless they had to amputate their leg during service or something. So a lot of them want to be exempt from the service or do alternative service as a social worker(which is only for those who are physically/mentally inept to fulfill military duty) but they also know that it is extremely hard to be completely exempt. Also, as a Korean man, being exempt or serving as a social worker could definitely be a scarlet letter that hinders them from starting a proper career since the society would view them as cheaters, boys usually look for military services that are considered easy(less tough) but considered ‘valid’ by other people, such as KATUSA(Korean Augmentation To the United States Army), alternative services such as working as a police/firefighter, or the navy/air force. On the other hand, there are those who volunteer to be a marine(which is considered the toughest). These people are either truly patriotic guys or those who would like to challenge their limits(?). This is what most of my friends and I think and probably coherent with other Koreans.

    • http://lovingkorean.com/ Oegukeen – from Loving Korean

      I’m not Korean but every Korean male friend I talked to has said the same thing. I think you explained it well.

      I’m just surprised at the lack of empathy. Honestly, being forced to go away somewhere for 2 years sounds quite dreadful to me. I would be miserable even if I had to be locked away 2 years in a spa, let alone in the army.

  • ZimbaZumba

    In general Korean men do not like serving in the military. It takes 2 years or more out of their lives and it can be harse.The answers you got in class are not what is say in private. Some feel bitter women do no have to do it.

  • Bob Smith

    One can’t have your cake and eat it too. Korea is a small country with a population that is very ambitious in schools, life ect. If there were no conscription, SK army would be very small. Kim-Jong-Un would just roll over to south Korea and take over.

  • Alberto

    I believe it’s not that they just don’t want to defend their country, but that they want to be fully recognized for their service. From the moment you are drafted, you can practically consider yourself a prisoner locked behind walls pf base/post. I got paid 60 bucks a month when I got promoted to Corporal. As an MP guard I had to run 3 shifts in 2 days and a day is divided in to four. Once on duty, no talk, no move, no nothing, and I had to do it for 24 months. After my discharge there has been no official compensation for my service from the government, yet they never forget to send me letters of reserve troops training notice. Boom! Two years gone for nothing, but only left me my tilted spine for having stood up with a rifle(k-2) on for too long. I hope that explains well enough…

    • http://bitsofdays.com/ Zia @ Bits of Days

      Just wondering, can you postpone being drafted though? A friend of mine just got drafted and he decided to go because he said he wanted to take time to figure out about his life… But he’s halfway through university… If I were him and it’s possible I’d do it after I get my degree.

  • Tiffany

    I was wondering with the service though, is it just a one-off thing? Or do you get drafted every few years? Just always have been curious about this.

    • qiranger

      The men serve their two years and then have to periodically return for reserve training for several years.

  • http://Hankookceb.com karen

    Hi everyone im k from Philippines and last year became a korean citizen bec my husband is korean and with 1 cute little boy….when i was in high school i am a platoon leader of a CAT and with a lots of awards..I love everything in military specially handling the m16 raffles,,so when i enrolled in collegei took a criminology course…..This time i want to enroll military service here in korea somebody can tell me what requirements they need to join this service?????i don’t want to ask about it to my hus coz he really don’t like me to join..thanks!

  • Yoo

    I am Korean guy age 20, and the real problem is not on who, but how, means their treat is cruel. Only 6.8 billion won for 5 years is used for the ones who are general, and mandatory service welfare. That is only 15111 won/ years (14$/5 years) for each persons. They got lesser than 100$ per month for at least 187 hour / month (night watch 5 hours per weeks, few weekend works..). Since military officers have not gotten interested what general soldiers do, there is absurd, unique soldiers cultures, which are succeed from Japanese empire (but japan do not now). Alberto got point. The real problem is they want to be fully recognized. Who want to be dedicate 21 months with that cruel treat?

  • kim

    I am a Korean woman and I feel really upset that I cannot go to army as mandatory to protect our country. I am strong enough to serve the military service. But the sad thing is that many women in Korea still believe that only man can serve military service…Seriously?? am I the only feminist in South Korea?