Photo Credit: Channel News Asia
By: Trisha Ray, Columnist
Under the shroud of constant crisis emanating from a belligerent North Korea (DPRK), a growing number of South Koreans are beginning to question the need for mandatory universal military service. Support for mandatory conscription is rapidly waning. It is increasingly viewed as neither a necessary or viable practice, necessitating a gradual shift to voluntary conscription.
Background: Why Conscript?
Conscription has existed in the Korean Peninsula since the Japanese first instituted it in 1943; and the current Conscription Law mandates that all able-bodied men aged 18-30 complete up to 36 months of military service or, conditionally, civil or public service.[i] The rationale for conscription was two-fold. First, the experience of the Korean War highlighted the need for constant preparedness for conflict with the North.[ii] Second, military service theoretically played the role of “the school of the nation” by creating conscientious, law-abiding citizens.[iii] There was a clear civic purpose for mandatory conscription in a nation divided arbitrarily along the 38th Parallel.
Six decades of conscription in South Korea resulted in its social perception as a rite of passage, with violators subject to formal persecution including fines and prison terms and informal persecution including “naming and shaming” campaigns run by the Military Manpower Administration (MMA) and the shunning of draft dodgers, particularly by people of the older generations[iv]
The Counterpoint: Why Conscription Has Had Its Day
A rising number of draft dodgers, “conscientious objectors” and other members of civil society are calling for a shift to voluntary conscription, or at least a reduction in the period of military service[v]. Indeed, much of the rationale for mandatory military service does not hold true in contemporary South Korea, despite the persistent pro-draft rhetoric.
The greatest weaknesses in pro-draft arguments is that while North Korea continues to be a seemingly intractable problem, the current massive conscript force is not necessary to counter this threat. The South Korean military is better funded and better equipped than that of the North.[vi] Additionally, South Korea will have considerable military support from the United States in the event of war. From a financial standpoint, the maintenance of a large draft force, which entails continued reserve duty exercises for 8 years after the initial enlistment, may cost up to 4-7 trillion won (around $880 million) per year.[vii] This may in turn result in the diversion of funding from the development of high-tech military equipment needed to effectively counter the North.[viii]
As a relatively new democracy, the South Korean government must also address reports of human rights abuses in the military. If and when South Korea initiates a shift away from compulsory service, it must address quality of life issues seemingly rampant in barracks life. For example, the prevalence of bullying has led to mass shootings and suicides.[ix] In February 2014, a bullied South Korean soldier opened fire on his colleagues, killing five, after which he attempted suicide. For his crimes, He was sentenced to death by a military court the following year.[x]
The shift to voluntary conscription will not happen overnight. The Defense Ministry would need to devise a strategy to gradually phase out conscription, starting with a mixed force. Concurrently, the MMA itself will need reform in order to carry out its functions effectively. Additionally, efforts must be made to improve conditions in the barracks and improve oversight of training conditions.
[i] Vladmir Tikhonov, “Militarism and Anti-militarism in South Korea: “Militarized Masculinity” and the Conscientious Objector Movement”, The Asia Pacific Journal Vol .7, Issue 12, No. 1 (March 2009); http://apjjf.org/-Vladimir-Tikhonov/3087/article.pdf; “Debate over voluntary military roils Korea”, The Korea Herald, September 22, 2016 http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160922000796.
[ii] “Lawmakers question mandatory military service”, KBS World (September 6, 2016) http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/news/news_Po_detail.htm?No=121639.
[iii] Anna Leander, “Drafting Community: Understanding the Fate of Conscription,” Armed Forces and Society, vol. 30, no. 4 (Summer 2004), 576-577.
[iv] “Draft Dodgers to be named and shamed online”, Chosun Ilbo, April 10, 2015 http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/04/10/2015041001676.html; Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, “Draft Dodging South Korean Style”, CBS News. June 24, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/draft-dodging-south-korean-style/.
[v] “Lawmakers question mandatory military service”, KBS World, September 6, 2016 http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/news/news_Po_detail.htm?No=121639.
[vi] “Military power comparison results for North Korea vs. South Korea”, Global Firepower, accessed November 5, 2016. http://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=north-korea&country2=south-korea&Submit=COMPARE.
[vii] “Military power comparison results for North Korea vs. South Korea”, Global Firepower, accessed November 5, 2016, http://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=north-korea&country2=south-korea&Submit=COMPARE; “Debate over voluntary military roils Korea”, The Korea Herald, September 22, 2016, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160922000796.
[ix] Donald Kirk, “South Korean Armed Forces Face Enemy within: Suicides and Murder”, Forbes, August 10, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/donaldkirk/2014/08/10/s-korean-armed-forces-face-the-enemy-within-sagging-morale-suicides-and-murder/#6a76e4f779cd.
[x] Hyung-Jin Kim, “South Korean soldier gets death penalty for shooting spree”, CTV News, February 3, 2015, http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/south-korean-soldier-gets-death-penalty-for-shooting-spree-1.2218040.