Reopening the debate about South Korea’s mandatory military service

The 70th anniversary of the last shots being fired in the Korean War will be marked this year. The war ended in 1953 with the signing of an armistice which was never intended to be a proper peace treaty. This was signed by North Korea, the US, and the heads of the UN, but not South Korea. Although few consequences of this open-ended war remain in South Korean society, there are still annual military exercises with the USA, occasional North Korean missile launches and a less worldwide-known practice: mandatory military service for young men.

Without other options, young men accept their fate and comply with the law for almost two years. Still, the matter is a generator of debate in Korean society. The latest controversy focused on 137 Koreans presenting false epilepsy medical reports to get an exemption from being drafted. And it comes as a surprise to no one that there are those keen to opt out.

Song Gunwoo, a university student who completed his military service in the air force, gave us some insights into possible causes of an increasing number of young men trying to avoid the military. According to his perspective, which resonates with many Koreans, the main reasons to avoid the military are the isolation of being away from one’s home environment, the hard time readjusting back to daily life afterwards, and the risk of having to take part in the case an actual armed conflict breaks out.

It is commonly encouraged to do military service after freshman or first year of college. This inevitably means taking at least a year and a half out of university. Also, according to Gunwoo, even though military service is a reality, the standard is not high.

Moreover, men have a common perception of the military based on past stories and shocking incidents. It is usual among young men to share stories about suicides or mass shootings of soldiers within the military bases, due mainly to stress. Just in 2021, a Navy trainee committed suicide after reporting bullying without receiving any support from his superiors. Prior to that, in 2015 a reserve soldier opened fire on his colleagues, wounding three and killing two, right before committing suicide.

Organizations such as World Without War (WWW) have been working since 2003 for the right for conscripts to become Conscientious Objectors. To this end, WWW worked with other national movements like the campaign against the expansion of Pyeongtaek US military base and the campaign against a new naval base in Gangjeong village, Jeju Island. Despite South Koreans gaining this right in 2019, those who choose this path must serve 36 months in administrative work in the country’s prison system. Along with groups such as Amnesty International, WWW have also been campaigning for the government to provide less punitive alternatives.

Those who serve in the military do not always agree with the status quo. Compliance does not necessarily mean agreement with mandatory military service or the state’s position toward North Korea. Thus compliance comes from a sense of responsibility and duty towards their families and friends, something taught throughout their lives and injected into South Korean culture.

Interestingly, there is one aspect of military service on which there is broad agreement in civil society. In 2022 The Korean Herald Insight surveyed 160 Korean teenagers, half males, half females. They found that 67,5% of young men and 50,1% of girls do not support the prevailing idea that only men should serve in the Korean military. Even a majority of female teenagers are in favor of a system that allows anyone to take part in military service!

Nevertheless, the demographics of South Korea are threatening the ability of the country to maintain their armed forces without military service. The country has a rapidly aging population, while the birth rate remains at 0.84 per woman. It is already predicted that the number of men eligible for military service by 2039 would be down by 200,000. Therefore, turning a mandatory military system into voluntary is considered by many as a threat to an already existing problem.

The increasing number of young Koreans attempting to avoid military service has reopened the latent debate surrounding mandatory military service for men. Clearly, a useful starting point to resolve the problem would be for member states of the United Nations, including the United States, South Korea and North Korea, to finally make efforts to bring the Korean War to a peaceful and demilitarized conclusion, thus remove the need for compulsory military service. The 70th anniversary of the last shots being fired would be a fitting moment to do this.

Clara Santos