If you’re familiar with the laws in South Korea, you might already know that Korean men are required to serve time in the military, whether they like it or not.
You’ve probably witnessed your favorite Korean male idol bid farewell to fans as he enlists in the South Korean military. Or perhaps, you have a male Korean friend who entered boot camp to begin the mandatory military service.
Waiting for someone to be discharged from the military almost feels like forever. Serving takes a long time as there are plenty of things to do in order to fulfill duties. If you’re curious why Koreans have to go to the military, sit back, keep scrolling, and have a great read ahead!
Military Service is Mandatory in South Korea
Based on the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, compulsory military service was made official and began in 1957. All 18 to 35-year-old Korean men liable for military service are obliged to devote themselves to national defense.
Even those with dual citizenship are required to serve in the military unless they renounce their Korean nationality and be considered foreigners by the Korean government.
Refusing or dodging the conscription duty for any reason will lead to up to three years of jail time as a convicted criminal. But in 2018, a Constitutional Court decision ordered the government to offer an option for conscientious objectors who refuses to serve in the military due to moral or religious beliefs.
To prevent being abused by men who simply wish to avoid military service, this alternative service requires the conscientious objectors to go through a meticulous screening process. Then, instead of enlisting in the military, they will have to work in prison for three years.
Why Do Koreans Have to Go to the Military?
The Korean Peninsula has been divided into North Korea and South Korea for 77 years since World War II in 1945. Meanwhile, the Korean War, which sparked in 1950 and lasted until 1953, ended with a truce.
Since the war between the two Koreas was halted only with a peace treaty, South Korea officially made military service compulsory for Korean men to counter possible attacks from the North. Therefore, Korean men are trained to maintain a ready fighting force and defend the country as it remains technically at war with North Korea.
Usually, Korean men enlist after spending two years in university. Some wait until they graduate to avoid disrupting their tertiary education. Before joining the military, they’re evaluated to determine what type of military service they’re fit to serve based on the results.
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Do Soldiers Get Paid for Military Service in South Korea?
Conscript soldiers in South Korea get paid for their service. However, they earn less than the country’s minimum or average wage, making discharged soldiers demand better treatment and pay increases.
As of 2021, below are the wages of soldiers based on their ranks:
- Private Second Class – 459,100 KRW (~350$)
- Private First Class – 496,900 KRW (~380$)
- Corporal – 549,200 KRW (~420$)
- Sergeant – 608,500 KRW (~470$)
Thankfully, the Ministry of National Defense is about to raise soldiers’ wages up to 1 million won in 2026.
Also, president Yoon Suk-yeol, who recently won the 2022 South Korean presidential election, vowed to increase enlisted soldiers’ wages to 2 million won. He states that soldiers deserve fair compensation because they provide time and dedication to their beloved country.
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How Long is the Military Service in South Korea?
The duration of military service in South Korea depends on the military branch and the type of duty or service.
Active duties such as Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are usually 18 to 24 months long. However, even after finishing the military service, discharged conscript soldiers become part of the reserve roster, requiring them to attend three days of annual military training for six years.
On the other hand, non-active duties like social service agents, industrial technical personnel, health professionals, and expert researcher are assigned to local community centers. They have a longer service time as these duties take 24 to 34 months to complete.
What Are the Rules at the Korean Military?
When joining the military, cutting the hair short and getting a military crew haircut is one of the most common military rules. Its purpose is to prevent the hair from getting in the way while training and combat.
During the first five weeks, new members have to undergo basic military training, including marching, exercising, firing weapons, and even speech training.
Soldiers are not allowed to leave the barracks. But after a long active duty of 100 days, they can be entitled to their first time off, which lasts for about four days. They’re also allowed to go home and visit their loved ones during holidays. If promoted, they’ll even receive ten extra days of time off!
The use of smartphones inside the military was prohibited at first, so soldiers’ families and friends have to write them letters or message them online on a specific website to communicate. But starting July 2020, they are finally allowed to use their smartphones at barracks after work hours.
Who Are Exempted to Attend to Military Service in South Korea?
Korean women are exempted from military service, but they’re free to volunteer if they want to. Apart from women, those incapable of performing military service due to physical or mental disease are also spared.
For instance, actor Park Hae-jin was exempted from serving his two-year military duty as he suffered from depression and social phobia. Actor Yoo Ah-In was also spared from military service because he was diagnosed with a bone tumor.
One of the current hottest topics on social media is that the leading K-pop group, BTS, might be exempted from mandatory military service for helping South Korea’s economy. However, although some elite athletes and classical musicians are granted an exemption, there’s still no confirmation of the circulating rumor. But the oldest members of the group were able to defer their start for two years.
Controversies Surrounding the Military Service in South Korea
Although mandatory military service in South Korea has been going on for a long time, there have been several controversies surrounding it.
Requiring only men to enlist, some people in South Korea considered it sexism for both genders. Men have no choice but to serve in the military just because they’re male, while women are not treated equally to men because of physical traits. Thus, creating a huge conflict in society.
Another military controversy is the abuse of power by higher ranks, which usually leads to assault or bullying.
We hope that this blog post has been an interesting read for you!
Koreans have to go to the military because they need to develop combat skills and train physical abilities to defend South Korea from threats. Some Koreans even believe that a boy can only be considered a man once he completes his military duties.
While some wish to avoid joining, most are still willing to devote themselves to the country, no matter how difficult the experience can be.
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