SEOUL – Kim Hyeongsu scored poorly on his rifle qualification test for the South Korean military, to the point where he was reprimanded for wasting government bullets. An officer ordered him to make a plank, repeatedly shouting, “I’m a tax waster!”
During basic training in 2011, Mr. Kim said, other military trainees injected hand sanitizer into their faces and genitals. Demoralized, one of them fled and was picked up within hours.
Mr Kim finished his service in 2013. But when he, like virtually all South Korean men, was called back to work as a reservist in 2014, he refused – and joined the growing number of people in the countries that question his legacy of compulsory military service.
“I enlisted because I wasn’t sure I could spend the rest of my life as an ex-convict,” for refusing to serve, said Mr. Kim, 32, peace activist. and conscientious objector. “But it was painful living in such a violent organizational culture that I had no intention of adjusting to.”
South Korea, a country still technically at war with the North, is rethinking the project. A rite of passage for millions of young men since the Korean War, the country’s military conscription policy is gradually crumbling.
Lawmakers are granting more exemptions. Some conscientious objectors can avoid criminal records. Some leaders want to include women to fill a gap in the ranks, while others want to do away with conscription altogether.
“There is a growing sense of the price we are paying to make the conscription system work,” said Kang Inhwa, a research professor of history at Seoul National University.
Conscription has long been seen as a bulwark against threats from North Korea, which, in numbers at least, has a robust army. In addition to its nuclear weapons, the North has 1.88 million troops, including 1.28 million active and 600,000 in reserve, and it likes to show their tenacity. A military build-up in China has added to the pressure on Seoul to strengthen its military.
South Korea is one of the few industrialized countries to still recruit its young people. Less than a third of the world’s countries actively enlist their people in the military, according to a 2019 Pew Research analysis. Taiwan phased out compulsory conscription in 2018. In the United States, military conscription is permitted but not currently Implementation.
South Korea has picked up its pace as other countries retreat as its rapidly falling birth rate has resulted in a conscript shortage. Its army is one of the largest in the world with around 3.3 million troops, of which 555,000 are active and 2.75 million are in reserves. To cope, he has increased the proportion of young men he enlists, from around 50 percent in the 1980s to over 90 percent today, by relaxing the eligibility criteria.
However, as conscriptions increased, public attitudes cooled. In a May survey by Gallup Korea, 42% of South Korean adults said they supported keeping the current conscription system, down 6 percentage points from 2016.
A few years ago, in 2014, a majority – nearly 56% – of people polled by Monoresearch said the conscription system should be maintained.
Critics of South Korea’s conscription system said it helped cultivate an institution riddled with abuse and discrimination, and kept men in their prime from the workforce.
Earlier this year, a Netflix show criticizing conscription became an unexpected hit in South Korea. Called “DP,” for the pursuit of deserters, he followed a fictional soldier tasked with capturing deserters, whose stories portrayed the emotional toll of conscription.
Although the military has said it will stop sending its personnel to capture the deserters starting next year, the show resonated with many viewers and even prompted some politicians to intervene.
Hong Jun-pyo, next year’s presidential candidate and opposition People Power Party MP, said on Facebook that he had watched the show and supported the transfer of the military. to an entirely voluntary force.
“What ‘DP’ showed was an iconic image of why the conscription system needs to change,” said Kwon In-sook, a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, who added that she supported a transition to an entirely voluntary army. “It showed how military culture sometimes deviates completely from our basic sensibilities.”
Hundreds of fans on social media have said the abuse he portrays resonated with their own painful experiences in the military. A viewer said he was beaten on the chin, cheeks and head and subjected to abusive language as a private. At one point, he said, things got so bad that he wanted to die.
A tougher conscription position always has its supporters. South Korean men who live abroad and have not served in the military are eligible, until the age of 36, to be enlisted once back home. A bill in the National Assembly would change this deadline to 45 years. They would face a jail term of up to three years if they refuse to serve.
Yet South Korean officials have granted exemptions even as conscription rates have risen. The government reduced the length of service by several months, which varies according to the branch; paved the way for conscientious objectors to perform alternative service in a civilian setting; and postponed military service for top K-pop stars until they were 30.
The project has long been supported by the idea that all men should serve in the military. The rebels are often stigmatized and estranged from their family and friends. Mr Kim, the conscientious objector, said he still had not told his parents about it.
Myungjin Moon, 37, refused to serve in 2010 because he opposed a military intervention in Iraq, where South Korea sent troops as part of the US-led coalition. He was jailed from 2011 for 15 months. He said his parents once told him that he “made bad friends and became a jerk.”
Those who avoid the draft face severe penalties. Mr. Kim was sentenced to six months in prison, one year of probation and 400 hours of community service, in addition to fines totaling approximately $ 677. If he finishes his community service while on probation, he said, he won’t need to spend time in jail. He also faces an ongoing trial for another charge dating back to 2016, which could lead to additional fines.
According to the government, an average of 600 to 800 people oppose military service each year. The vast majority are Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a few, like Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon, oppose it for political or personal reasons. Last year, authorities began allowing certain conscientious objectors to perform public service while in detention and avoid having criminal charges on their file.
Despite growing public unease with conscription, South Korea has failed to come to a consensus on whether to amend or abolish it altogether. Gallup Korea found that 43% of South Koreans were in favor of moving to a fully voluntary military, an increase of 8 percentage points from 2016.
Ha Tae-keung, a People Power Party lawmaker, has suggested drafting women, a proposal 46% of adults support, compared to 47% who don’t, according to Gallup Korea.
“If men and women are enlisted together, the army can be formed with better suited people,” Ha said.
Even conscription advocates say the military must take action to make the service more attractive.
The number of men in their 20s is expected to halve by 2040, said Ahn Seok Ki, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. This means that the military may not be able to deploy the number of people it needs, unless it encourages recruits to stay longer and recruit more volunteers.
“The conscription system must be maintained,” he said. “It is not practical to move to a completely voluntary system. But it is possible to reduce the number of conscripts and increase the number of volunteers.
“To do this,” he added, “many changes need to be made to make the military more suitable for the younger generation.”