What is it like in the Korean Army? At what point after these two years could they call you to actually have to shoot and fight people?
I came across virtually no first-hand literature on the effects of the mandatory military enlistment of South Korean men once they reach a certain age. However, from what I've gleaned, it is nonetheless a truly transformative event. It is also a subject that I hesitate somewhat to breach with contacts. What do they go through in the military? What happens after? How are they “different”? Do they end up as “messed up” as some sociological literature implies?
I'm a U.S. citizen and I recently just found out that all Korean Men citizen have to serve at least 2 years of military service, or they get imprisoned or banned from Korea. What would happen if a U.S. citizen immigrated to South Korea and became a citizen? Would they have to do military service?
Full Disclosure: the Korean never served in the Korean military. He left the country before the eligible draft age, so he does not have to. This qualifies the Korean as a draft dodger in the eyes of a number of Koreans. Talking about Korean military as a draft dodger is a tricky business, because a lot of emotions on the part of Korean men ride on the military service. If you are a type of person who watches NASCAR only for the slight chance of a spectacular crash, this may be the post for you.
The Korean already wrote a bit about the military experience in Korea here. Of course, the takeaway from that post is this picture...
... which gives an idea of what Korean military experience is like. (That pose is called Wonsan pok-gyeok, which translates to "bombing of Wonsan." Wonsan is a port city in North Korea. This punishment is applied liberally for various causes, such as being slow in marching, losing a soccer game, or overcooking sarge's ramen.)
Military draft in Korea takes a long time to explain, so the Korean will have a three part series. Part I will describe the mechanics of actually serving in the Korean military as a draftee. Part II will describe the life of Korean soldiers in the military. Part III will describe the impact of military service in Korean society.
The Mechanics of Serving in the Korean Military
This is the fact that is the most important in understanding how Koreans approach their military duty: Korea is still technically at war against North Korea. The Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Therefore, the military administration in Korea operates on the assumption that there will be another war in the scale of Korean War, which killed several million soldiers and civilians.
One can say the military practice in Korea begins in high school, where there is a separate class for military drills, like Physical Education for example. However, military drills class has become less and less war-related in the recent years, getting to the extent that it now focuses more on emergency response than actual drills.
That aside, all Korean men between the age of 18 and 35 must serve a mandatory military duty. [-EDIT 8/16/2011- As of January 1, 2011, the upper limit for draft eligibility was raised to 37 years of age.] The length of the duty depends on where you go and what you do, but it used to be generally between 2.5 to 3 years. A new plan recently introduced would gradually shorten the length down to 1.5 years by 2014. Generally, Korean men elect to report for duty at the end of their second year in college, such that they may return to finish two years of the college. Usually you can defer enlistment as long as you are in school, up to age 24.
The question of “where you go and what you do” clearly is the most important one. Obviously military involves fighting on the frontline – and Korea has a long frontline against North Korea. To determine the assignment, all Korean men over the age of 18 must report to the local draft board to have a physical examination. The examination categorizes men into seven levels, and people below Level 5 do not have to serve in active duty.
Achieving Level 5 and below is fairly difficult; you really have to have some severe injury, such as a torn ACL, missing index finger, serious mental illness etc., to qualify. However, there are certain non-health related issues that would disqualify one from serving, generally described as “people who would create disharmony in the unit.” Interestingly, another group that falls into this category is people who have excessive tattoos, because tattoos are generally considered a sign for a gang membership.
Another group of people who are considered liable to create disharmony in the unit is non-ethnic Koreans or mixed heritage Koreans. Therefore, to answer A Teen’s question, no, naturalized Korean citizen would not have to serve. The Korean heard someone claim that naturalized Korean citizen may volunteer to serve, but he had not seen a policy that actually supports that claim.
Levels 1 through 4 must report for an active duty, which means they all go through 5 weeks of basic training. After the basic training, they are assigned to various posts throughout Korea. The Korean will list them from toughest to softest.
Instead of working as a plain soldier, draftees have the option of volunteering for tougher assignments such as the marines, paratroopers, Special Forces, military police, etc. Even after being discharged, these men tend to carry themselves with a lot of pride. (Read: “won’t shut up about it.”)
Then there is a regular infantry, most common in number. Part II of this series will describe their experience in greater detail.
But military is not just about going out to fight. Certain types of alternative service options, such as working as a part of the police force or the firefighting outfit, are also available. Also available are relatively less grueling positions, such as chaplain, judge advocate general, medics, interpreters, and assistant professors at the military academies. Obviously, a professional license is usually a prerequisite in getting such positions, which means some Korean men opt not to enlist in the middle of their college life and choose instead to study for the medical school, for example. There is even a semi-professional “military team” that plays as a part of sports leagues so that star athletes may continue playing during their service.
Probably the softest positions are the “defense industry” positions, in which eligible males would work for companies that contribute to the national defense for the length of the service. The process of being qualified for these positions – because it is perhaps the least physically grueling “military” experience – is somewhat shady. The companies that appear to be unlikely to contribute to the defense industry, such as KIS Pricing (a company that evaluates bond prices) or NHN, Inc. (holding company for Naver, Korea’s equivalent of Google), are allocated slots for the defense industry positions. Hiring for those positions are equally shady, as those positions are usually filled with the children of the wealthy and powerful.
Equally soft is the “Public Service Agents” positions, usually reserved for Level 4 people – those who qualify for active duty, but just barely. If you live in Korea, these guys are the men in green uniform working at a subway station or a local government office. Public Service Agents essentially work as a government clerk, and are subject to much ridicule by most other Korean men.
A bit of an anomaly is KATUSA, i.e. Korean Augmentation To U.S. Army. Draftees may volunteer for KATUSA if they score high on an English exam. Because there are usually more qualified applicants than available slots, there is a lottery process after the exam. As the name implies, KATUSA draftees serve their duty at USFK bases. KATUSA is also considered somewhat soft because you are allowed to go home at night and do not report on the weekends.
Of course, in addition to the draftees, there are career military men who enter the military academy or stay on after their mandatory service as a non-commissioned officer. ROTC is also a popular option, since you can enlist as an officer for your service.
After serving in active duty, Korean men are considered to be serving in an inactive duty. For eight years after the end of service, Korean men are supposed to report for a mandatory training up to 100 hours a year. In case of a war, Korean men in the 8-year period are drafted to fight. Also in case of a war, all Korean men between ages 18 and 45 are drafted for labor mobilization.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.