In South Korea, able-bodied men have two choices: serve 21 months in the military before they turn 35, or spend 18 months in prison.
According to Amnesty International, the country imprisons more men for refusing military service than all other countries with mandatory military service combined. Conscientious objectors are often left with a lifetime criminal record, which can create hurdles when seeking employment. Since 2015, the government has also published the personal details of anyone who refuses to serve on a public website. Add to this the social stigma that comes with refusing to serve, and it becomes clear that while the number of conscientious objectors has increased over the past decade, for most men it is simply easier to serve their 21 months.
This was the general rhetoric I encountered during my stay with the South Korean army in early July. While those who had voluntarily joined the army seemed to be enjoying their service, those who were serving their mandatory time were adamant that they wouldn’t return. We were informed that the retention rates were very low and that the army didn’t quite know how to encourage men to stay. By far the most eye-opening part of my stay with the army was having coffee with a few of the soldiers. Our group of Australians were paired off with three or four young men and left to spend an hour learning about each other, while navigating the language divide. My group of four soldiers included a man who had spent some time in Australia before commencing his service, meaning he was nominated to act as translator for the others. We discussed a range of topics: How old are you? What do you study? What’s your favourite local cuisine?
As the conversation became more relaxed, we delved into the deeper issues: Do you like being in the army? Would you choose to serve if it wasn’t mandatory? What’s the worst part of being here? The men all agreed they would never choose to serve. One told us how he would be chased if he tried to leave. Another mimed being put in handcuffs. The only part they enjoyed was each other’s company: “we’re like brothers now”. Just one of them, the translator, hinted at how he had managed to endure most of his 21 months. His words were to the effect of “I understand that it is necessary for us to do it”. When pressed, he couldn’t explain what he really meant. But it was clear that while these young men detested the position they were in, they knew why they had to do it. It was an ingrained loyalty to their country, which is technically still at war with its northern neighbour.
Yet the generational gap is growing as the impacts of the policy are becoming more prominent. Mental health issues are rampant both within the military and beyond. Critics of the system often raise the poor mental health of serving and ex-soldiers as a reason to discontinue the policy. While those diagnosed with certain mental illnesses prior to service, such as bipolar disorder, can fulfil alternative service instead, those who develop a mental illness while serving in the military are not always met with the help they need. Statistics from the South Korean Ministry of National Defence placed the rate of military suicides at 82 per year between 2009 and 2013. For comparison, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that there were 84 suicide deaths in the Australian full time serving military population between 2001 and 2014. Most of the ranking officials we encountered during our stay declined to answer questions related to the mental health impact of mandatory service, which in my opinion further highlights the depth of the issue. As the rest of Korean society begins to tackle mental health issues through initiatives such as a shorter working week, it is hard to believe that the army can stay silent on such a pertinent issue.
The South Korean courts, too, are starting to shift in their thinking towards mandatory service. Courts are becoming more likely to acquit conscientious objectors, with 44 acquitted in 2017. A recent Constitutional Court ruling dictated that the system needed to provide an alternative for conscientious objectors who decline to serve on the basis of personal, religious or political principles. There are currently three bills moving through National Assembly to allow objectors to perform an alternative service. These could include working in social welfare services, enlisting with the fire department, or helping in disaster aid efforts. These options have previously been available to those considered ‘ineligible’ for active duty, but the bills would allow anyone with a legitimate reason to opt for them. Public support is also growing for these options; according to the Korean National Human Rights Commission, 10.2% of South Koreans in 2005 were in favour of alternative service, but by 2016 the percentage had risen to 46.1%.
It would be a huge overreach to think that South Korea’s mandatory military service policy will be abandoned in the near future. While public opinion is shifting towards providing alternatives for conscientious objectors, the majority still sees the need to have an active and ready armed force. It will never be as simple as merely removing the policy, either, as it has permeated almost every aspect of South Korean society. This complex country, still technically in the grips of a long-running war, may slowly come to terms with the potential dangers of mandatory service as time goes on. For now, however, its young men must continue to sacrifice two years of their life for the good of the country.