Seoul-Kim Hyun-soo was beaten for wasting government bullets due to poor results in the South Korean rifle qualification test. The policeman ordered him to board, repeatedly yelling, “I’m a waste of tax!”
According to Kim, during the 2011 basic training, other military trainees sprayed each other’s face and genitals with hand sanitizer. Depressed, one escaped and was re-captured within hours.
Kim finished his military service in 2013. But, like virtually all Korean men, he refused when he returned to his reserve mission in 2014. Mandatory military service.
“I wasn’t sure I could spend the rest of my life as a former prisoner, so I joined the army,” said Kim, a 32-year-old peace activist and conscientious objector. “But it was painful to live in a violent organizational culture that I didn’t intend to adapt to.”
South Korea, which is technically continuing the war with North Korea, is rethinking the draft. Since the Korean War, the country’s conscription policy, a rite of passage for millions of young people, is gradually being lost.
Lawmakers are opening up more tax exemptions. Some conscientious objectors can avoid criminal records. Some leaders want to include women to make up for the lack of rank, while others want to abolish the draft altogether.
“There is a growing sense of compensation for running a conscription system,” said Kang In-hwa, a professor of history research at Seoul National University.
Conscription has long been seen as a breakwater against threats from North Korea, which has at least a number of powerful military forces. In addition to nuclear weapons, North Korea has an army of 1.88 million, 1.28 million active, and 600,000 reserves, who like to show off their toughness. Strengthening military power in China is putting pressure on Seoul to strengthen its military power.
South Korea is one of the few developed countries that is still drafting young people. According to a 2019 Pew Research analysis, less than one-third of the world’s countries are actively drafting their people into the army. Taiwan phased out the conscription system in 2018. In the United States, military drafting is approved but not currently underway.
South Korea has been accelerating as other parts of the world recede, as the sharp drop in fertility has led to a conscription deficit. Its army is one of the largest in the world, with approximately 3.3 million troops, 555,000 active and 2.75 million reserves. To address this, the percentage of young men drafted has increased from about 50% in the 1980s to more than 90% today by relaxing eligibility requirements.
However, as the conscription system strengthened, the attitude of the people became colder. According to a May survey conducted by Gallup Korea, 42% of South Korean adults support maintaining the current conscription system. This is a 6 point decrease from 2016.
A few years earlier, in 2014, the majority of people surveyed by Monoresearch (about 56%) said they needed to maintain conscription.
Critics of South Korean conscription said it helped foster a system full of abuse and discrimination, which helped keep men from the workforce to their prime minister.
Earlier this year, Netflix’s show, which criticized conscription, was an unexpected hit in South Korea. Called “DP” for the pursuit of deserters, it followed a fictitious civilian assigned to capture the deserters. The story portrayed the emotional sacrifice of drafting.
The military said it would stop dispatching personnel to catch deserters starting next year, but the show sympathized with many viewers and urged some politicians to weight.
Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate for next year’s presidential election and a member of the opposition People Power Party, said on Facebook that he had seen the show and agreed to move his army to all volunteers.
“The’DP’showed a symbolic picture of why the conscription system had to be changed,” said Democrat Kwon In-sook, adding that he supported the transition to the full-volunteer army. “It has shown that military culture can deviate completely from our basic sense.”
Hundreds of fans of social media said the abuse it portrayed resonated with their own painful experience in the military. One viewer said he had been beaten on his chin, cheeks and head and exposed to abusive language as a private person. At some point, he said things got worse and he wanted to die.
There are still supporters of the stricter conscription system. Korean men who live abroad and do not belong to the military are eligible to be drafted after returning to Japan until the age of 36. A bill in parliament changes its deadline until the age of 45. If they refuse to serve, they can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Still, despite rising draft rates, Korean authorities are opening up exemptions. The government has reduced the length of service, which varies from branch office to branch office, by several months. Conscientious objectors paved the way for alternative services in a private environment. And they postponed military service for top K-pop stars until they were thirty.
Conscription has long been supported by the view that all men must serve in the military. Draft evasion is often stigmatized and alienated from family and friends. Conscientious objector Kim said he hadn’t talked to his parents yet.
Moon Myung-Jin, 37, refused to serve in 2010 because South Korea opposed military intervention in Iraq, which sent troops as part of a US-led coalition. He was imprisoned for 15 months from 2011. He once said that his parents had told him, “I made the wrong friends and became a comedy.”
Those who avoid drafts can face severe punishment. Kim was sentenced to six months in prison, one year of probation, and 400 hours of community service, in addition to a total fine of about $ 677. He said he wouldn’t have to spend time in jail if he completed his community services during probation. He has also faced an ongoing trial on another claim since 2016 and may be subject to additional fines.
According to the government, an average of 600 to 800 people oppose military service each year. The majority are Jehovah’s Witnesses, but others, such as Kim and Moon, oppose them for political or personal reasons. Last year, authorities began allowing conscientious objectors to carry out their official duties while in captivity and avoid criminal accusations on their records.
Despite growing public discomfort with the conscription system, South Korea has not reached consensus on whether to change or abolish the conscription system altogether. Gallup Korea found that 43% of South Koreans supported the transition to the full volunteer army. This is an increase of 8 percentage points from 2016.
According to Gallup Korea, Ha Tae-keung, a member of the People Power Party, is proposing to recruit women. This is supported by 46% of adults, compared to 47% who do not.
“If men and women are drafted together, the army may be made up of the right people,” Ha said.
Even defenders of conscription say that the military must take steps to make service more attractive.
Ahn Suk Ki, a researcher at the Korea Defense Analysis Institute, said the number of men in their twenties is expected to halve by 2040. In short, the military may not be able to secure the required number of recruits unless they are motivated to stay for longer terms and more volunteers are involved.
“The conscription system should be maintained,” he said. “It’s not practical to switch to a full volunteer system, but it’s …