There is no doubt that there are many differences between the East and West, so it is not surprising that, with the expansion and popularisation of Korean culture, many of its admirers from Western countries find certain cultural aspects surprising, and even shocking. One of the main ones is the mandatory military service for all young people born in South Korea.
The mandatory military service (also called recruitment or conscription) consists of a period of military training, in which recruits pass through a basic training phase to later be assigned to the different areas of the army. In general, all healthy young men are obliged to perform this service, between 18 and 35 years of age, depending on the country. Throughout history, this system has been established in several countries around the world due to potential war conflicts or as a means of conflict prevention. Although the fulfilment of military service is considered by many governments as a duty of citizens towards their homeland, the need for this measure is often due to a lack of soldiers in the professional military body.
Due to the geopolitical instability of the world, this system has been in force in practically all countries, at some point or other. However, there are currently relatively few that maintain it. That is why many people are surprised that military service remains mandatory in South Korea.
Although most people think that the Korean war ended in 1953, after the conflict initiated in 1950 by North Korea, this is not entirely true. While it is true that an armistice was “agreed upon”, this was never a peace treaty, but an end to hostilities, which South Korea refused to sign. It was not until 1991 that both parties signed the Basic North-South Agreement, whose objective would be the reunification of the territory. However, due to North Korea’s priority to develop nuclear weapons, the conflict remains latent. For this reason, the South Korean government introduced mandatory military service in 1957, which currently remains as a prevention from any possible reactivation of hostilities.
In South Korea, military service is mandatory for all young men between 18 and 28 years old. At the age of 18, men must undergo a physical and psychological examination to determine if they are suitable for active service. The first phase of the conscription consists of basic training, which lasts about 5 weeks, and the total duration varies according to the branch of the armed forces to which each individual is assigned: in the Army and the Marine infantry it is 18 months; in the Navy, it is 20 months; and in the Air Forces it is 21 months. There is also a substitute civil service within the military field for those who are not in good physical and/or psychological condition (due to injuries, or other pathologies), which lasts 21 months, or in more serious cases, the absolute exemption. Additionally, there are other exceptions and exemptions that allow certain members of society, such as professional artists and athletes, to not have to complete military service or perform an alternative public service instead, as long as the government considers that they have done a service to the country.
For example, Tottenham’s football player, Son Heung-Min, is one of the athletes who has recently been exempt from performing his military service, thanks to having won the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games, with the South Korean national football team. Likewise, pianist Seong-Jin Cho was also exempt when he won the ‘International Chopin Piano Competition’, making him the first South Korean to achieve it. However, although sometimes exceptions apply to artists of classical music or dance, the situation seems to be different for the pop genre. One of the greatest controversies is the participation of K-Pop idols in mandatory military service. While many think that every Korean man has the duty to complete his service, regardless of his profession, many others believe that, since K-Pop has contributed to a great increase in the economy of South Korea, idols of at least the most influential groups should be exempt. In fact, there was quite a lot of debate regarding whether or not BTS would/should go to the army, but it seems that in the end the boy band will have to fulfil their duty, a position that the members had always defended. Nonetheless, in 2020 a law (popularly known as ‘BTS Law’) was approved that would allow pop stars that have contributed to the elevation of South Korea’s status to postpone their military enlistment until the age of 30; 2 years later than usual. Additionally, they must have been awarded South Korea’s Hwagwan Orders of Cultural Merit for promoting the Korean language through their music, and a recommendation from the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of South Korea, conditions that, to date, only BTS has achieved.
On the other hand, another of the great controversies is that the right to conscientious objection, which is accepted in other countries, was not recognised in South Korea until 2018. Until that moment, those who refused to carry out the compulsory military service for religious, moral, or political reasons had to fulfil an 18-month prison sentence, which placed them as criminals in Korean society and made it really difficult for them to have access to the work market. Although the situation has improved slightly for conscientious objectors, the “alternative civilian service” that is offered to them (working in a prison or another correctional facility for 3 years) seems rather a punishment for the diversity of belief. Organisations such as Amnesty International advocate for a genuinely civic alternative service, and of comparable duration to the military service, as is indicated by international human rights laws and standards, which with a little luck could help to eliminate the stigma of conscientious objection.
As South Korea establishes connections and grows internationally, it is possible that the conditions in the military service could change, taking into account the plurality of Korean society. I hope this blog has been informative and entertaining!
Written by: Anna Franco Ucar
Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero
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