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A Dreaded Rite of Passage: South Korea’s Mandatory Military Service

At one point in his life, every adult Korean male must live in a military barrack, cut off from the civilian world, with just a few of his personal belongings, constantly under the watch of his superiors. At the beginning of his military duty, he endures a notoriously grueling five-week basic training program. For the average, young Korean man, compulsory military conscription is not so much a patriotic duty as it is a chore.

Dreaded and virtually inescapable, it is chore that has become the primary rite of passage for young Korean men who are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. There are several reasons that may qualify an individual for exemption, but they are either too difficult to prove or hold repercussions far too long-lasting to be worth the hassle. Serious medical and psychological conditions may lead to exemption, but ultimately it is up to the rather arbitrary discretion of military physical examiners whether a medical condition is debilitating enough to interfere with military training.

Holders of dual citizenship under the age of 18 can renounce Korean citizenship. Giving up one’s citizenship usually doesn’t get more complex than signing a form, but reclaiming it is not as simple. A male who gave up Korean citizenship before military service age, and whose situation makes it evident that this was done for the purpose of skirting conscription, will find it nearly impossible to retrieve his citizenship. This is hardly an issue for young men who expect to settle down abroad, but for those who want to live and work in Korea, abandoning Korean citizenship may lead to bigger problems in the future. Korea’s employment and residence laws make it extremely difficult for non-citizens to enjoy the same privileges and protection that citizens do, and even relatively trivial things like buying a phone become much more complicated for non-citizens.

While legal ways out of conscription exist, it’s difficult to either meet the requirements or to deal with the longer lasting cultural repercussions. Young working class men who were born and raised in Korea may speak of skirting conscription, but they really have no choice. Without having served in the military, a 20- or 30-something-year-old man is rarely accepted as a “man.” As a result, a young man who aims to work in an office environment with male superiors, who themselves will have served in the military, feels not only legally, but also culturally obligated to serve. “If you don’t behave in a manly manner, they might ask you, ‘Have you been to the military yet?’” a 40-year-old Korean man told CBS in 2009.

Older men tend to look back on their service years with a strange tinge of nostalgia and pride, but those younger than 18 and those in the 18–35 age group worry about the prospect of being conscripted. It’s an unusual part of “becoming a man” that requires men to put quite literally every aspect of their lives — their education, their careers — on hold for nearly two years. When these men reenter and readapt to civilian society, they are two years behind their peers. Even here at Brown, many male undergraduate students with Korean citizenship leave after their first or second years and return two years later as sophomores or juniors, while their former classmates are seniors or have already graduated.

Scandals involving government officials whose sons are exempted from conscription reflect the cultural disapproval of not serving in the military, legally or illegally. Most recently, a lawmaker of the opposition party revealed that the sons of 16 high-ranking officials of the ruling party opted for U.S. or Canadian citizenship, allegedly in order to dodge conscription. Although their renouncement of citizenship is perfectly legal, public condemnation of such revelations is particularly harsh. When a government official — whose occupation is, in essence, to serve the country — allows his or her son to skirt military conscription, the public sees it as akin to violating individual civic duty.

Insufficient post-service compensation measures are another reason young men may feel like military service is a waste of time. In the past, when the service requirement was closer to three years, viable incentives made conscription a less harrowing prospect. For example, a civil service candidate would get additional points on his civil service exam if he had completed his military service. And for a man who had completed three years of service and was employed by a civilian firm, three years in the military would count toward three years of experience within a firm. These incentives were discontinued after the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family took serious issue with them, claiming that the government was condoning and even perpetuating gender discrimination in the workplace.Every Korean, male or female, is aware of how exhausting, long, and inescapable military service is. Of the 27 countries with mandatory military service laws, Korea has one of the longest service periods at 21 months. Service members are compensated, but the sum is lower than the national minimum wage, with entry-level soldiers being paid the equivalent of $90 a month. Training exercises are purposely designed to recreate the physically taxing conditions of conventional and chemical warfare. The psychological stress of adapting to the military’s hierarchical and disciplinary culture is just as exhausting, if not more. A spike in suicides among new service soldiers may be an indication of the difficulty that young men face in adjusting to a new lifestyle, in which they are expected to obey their superiors’ every command and in which maltreatment is disguised as a norm of military barracks culture. They have no option to disobey, their emotional and mental distress is of little concern to their superiors and there is no legal way out once they are in.

So it’s understandable that few look forward to conscription. If they do, it is at the prospect of being accepted as a man, out of fear of the consequences of not serving and rarely at the prospect of serving one’s country. Heightened tensions on the peninsula have given the government a reason to stress the political importance of Korea’s Reserve Forces. In 2010, North Korea launched a torpedo attack on the Cheonan warship killing 46 of a total of 104 sailors that included service members. The 2011 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island put the entire Korean military on high alert.

While the government’s reasons for continuing military conscription laws are strictly political and military, the reality is that to most Koreans, military conscription is a culturally significant experience. Is it problematic that such a disparity exists between the purposes of conscription and how the Korean people perceive it? Not really, given the impersonality of the notion of patriotic duty to young men, and the, quite frankly, horrid conditions of military life that may drive away even the most patriotic of men. The cultural institutionalization of military service as a rite of passage partially alleviates the dread and aversion that men feel toward their pending conscription. Still, the government can make a more conscious effort to bolster its political justification for mandatory conscription. Realistically, a strike from the North is highly unlikely, but without its Reserve Forces South Korea stands no chance against the North Korean military, the largest in the world.

Image Credit: 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces2009.3. 22 과학화 전투 훈련장 (7445958096)CC BY-SA 2.0