Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Military Service Series: Part I - Mechanics of Military Service in Korea

Dear Korean,

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?


Dear Korean,

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?


Dear Korean,

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?

A Teen

Dear questioners,

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 askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. A great start - and a subject I've been interested in learning more about as well. Looking forward to the next two parts :)

  2. Some inaccuracies here.

    "Defense" industries are not the only places where you can work as "Skilled Industrial Personnel" or "Technical Research Personnel." There are also research facilities and institutes, and diverse companies in engineering, IT, and manufacturing, etc. designated by the government as "infrastructure industries (기간산업체)" that you can work for.

    Working as an SIP or TRP is quite popular among graduates of top engineering schools in Korea, and most of these cases are actually quite legit overall. Of course, personal connections can make it easier to get hired to good companies (which is true with employment in general) but a lot of hiring is done quite fairly based on job qualifications. A government-issued skill certification obtained via examination is also usually required to be an SIP.

    At NHN, a number of engineering positions are for SIPs and are quite legit. KIS Pricing or the like, maybe not. Especially if the guy with the well-connected dad doesn't even show up for work and spends his time studying in a library or jerking off at home, like a friend of mine did.

  3. Are gays considered disharmonious to unit performance? What's the official position of the Korean draft board?

    1. I'm not an authority on this, but just as a Korean, I'd say the answer is almost certainly yes. An enormous percentage of the Korean population isn't even educated on the existence of homosexuals. I highly doubt the military would be very keen on accepting them.

    2. If you're gay, then you're dishonourably discharged.

  4. "A new plan recently introduce would gradually shorten the length down to 1.5 years by 2014."

    This is not going to pass. There has been debate on this subject in recent years, but it was met with fierce oppostion from all sides. Most men view this shortening as totally unfair and are quite angry that it is even being discussed.


    "In case of a war, all Korean men between ages 18 and 45 are drafted to fight."

    Not true. As you mentioned, you are a reserve for eight years after active duty is completed. That's true. However, once you finish your reservist requirement, you then become part of "civil defense".

    As a civil defender, you must organize your neighborhood in the case of an invasion or evacuation. There is no fighting unless it comes to you and, in that case, all ages get invloved.

  5. Also something to note. Regular ROK soldiers tend to have a severe dislike for the KATUSA's, KATUSA's tend to be the "upper crust" children who had the private English tutors and who's parents could "pay off" or had "connections" to get them into the KATUSA program.

    The best way to describe the regular ROK Army would be the US army circa 1960-1970s. They can and often do hit subordinates as punishment, and there are certain rituals they go through (first pass and so on).

    Having had several KATUSA's as my soldiers before (KATUSA's report to a US NCO for their actual day to day job) and as my friends I will gladly assist with any questions you may have.

  6. Of course, the duration is different for each, I think. The "normal" draftees go for about 23-26 months, the medical officers serve 3 years, and the Defense Industry guys put in their 5 years. (the medical officers still go through the 3-4 month "military training" beforehand).

    Then again, the 5 year guys just consider it a normal "civilian" job.

    Just hearsay of course. I have a brother and two cousins doing each of the three.

    Bro considers the Korean military basically the most-stupid-making institution in the world. But great for losing weight. (He dropped 20 pounds in 6 months)

  7. As a fellow draft dodger, I would like to thank Immigration Naturalization Services for granting my family green cards. Because with out it, I would of been part of many unhappy camper.

    My father has said on a numerous occasions that Korean military would of instilled some discipline I desperately lack -- we certainly have our difference of opinions.

  8. kdufos,

    What you said is all true, but the Korean also personally knows that at least some number of positions at NHN is not legit at all. One position involves weeding out trolls in the message boards.


    As far as Korean government is concerned, there are no gays in Korea. Link


    Correct -- the "fight" word in the post was wrong. Age 45 refers to wartime labor mobilization, rather than fighting, according to Military Manpower Administration. Link


    Even defense industry guys serve three years.


    while the Korean does not necessarily agree with your father, the Korean at least agrees that America does tend to make people soft.

  9. I date a Korean man here in Korea. (I'm White)

    Often times talks of his military experience come up. Things like he was bored most of the time, and winter sucked the most.

    But we have spoken about how serving 2 years with just men and training exercises makes him more adult like. I compared him to American men, saying he is more mature and grown-up than they are. Meaning the American men I know in his age range...25-30 are just oversized teens.

    It seems he takes responsibility more seriously.

    anyways I would say YES it affects their life afterwards..

    Whether it was a "disturbing" experience, I don't think so. But tedious and boring yes. Probably a waste of 2 yrs of his young adult life...yes. Also men go in with relationships and the gals leave them while in the military...its a common story.

  10. My white Brother-in-Law has said on a numerous occasions that U.S Marines are stronger than the ROK Marines. Although I am no associations with neither of the military, I've heard some stories that ROK Marines are pretty hard core.

    1. As a U.S. Marines that spend a short time in Korea training with the ROK Marines I can say they are just like the rest of us. They bitch, they moan, they laugh, we laugh, we trade (they are shit traders). They certainly don't get off easy in the ROK Marines, but, and I may be bias here, I would have to say American Marines are more prepared and more experienced in fights. Korea has been preparing for a war so long the last one that actually fought one would probably be in their 70s. While Americans are always in one war or another.

  11. This is fantastic so far, I hope you post the other parts soon!

  12. Oh god no...
    The military service is for 24~26 months?!? Isn`t it 22 months??
    Thats`s what my boyfriend told me... T_T

  13. Hello! im south korean! 16years old. but im a resident of america! ive been living there since i was three and have been told a lot of times that i have to go to this military service shit. im starting to think if its worth going..ive been told that its not worth it. but anyways...what EXACTLY happens if you don't go? give me everything.

    1. I think you will just be banned from entering Korea forever if you will not enlist. It's like you are throwing your Korean blood and rights entirely.

  14. In all honesty, you are a white man that holds a foreign passport. To write this as if you would have ever been eligible for the draft is a bit insulting to your Korean readers. Although you show sensitivity in many areas, in dealing with a culture that is not your own, this is not the case here. You grew up there, but familiarity does not make it your culture. You went home to white parents and a white upbringing. You may have been given an insider's view, but you are not an insider. To pretend otherwise is insulting. You should be writing as an ethnographers, no one of us.

    BTW, you gave yourself away when you wrote about Korean citizenship requirements. No Korean man, raised in Korea, would ever dream of suggesting that what made someone Korean was something other than blood. And every real Korean knows this.

  15. Gena,

    Where in the world did you get the idea that the Korean is white?

  16. Probably cause the way you talk mang. Growing up in the US has that affect.

  17. Dear Fellow Korean.

    Hey I'm 17 in High School, and I was thinking about the Korean military....
    1st off I was born in Korea and I moved to U.S. in 4th grade. I've recently got my Green Card. I understand I still have to go to the Korean Military,I'm pretty sure I will go as a KATUSA since I'm very fluent in both Hangul and English.
    So I was wondering about the KATUSA program... I don't necessarily want to spend 23 months in the military vs. staying in school to become a cosmetic surgeon. I don't think it would be beneficial for me to go unless I got something out of it.
    SO here is my question.
    Is it possible to enlist as a U.S. Military soldier and serve for the KATUSA program? Would serving time as a KATUSA as a U.S. soldier count as serving the mandatory military service for Korea?
    I would only serve as a U.S. soldier since they have benefit of paying off tuition for school vs. going in as a Korean Soldier with no benefits and Me out of 23plus months of school.

    If you have any answers, I'd really appreciate it. thanks!

    1. I know you have asked a question two years ago about participating in KATUSA program in US Military.

      Did you find some sort of answers by any chance?

      I am currently 19 years old, a freshman in college.

  18. so it is because of a "just in case another war with SK comes" reason. in the philippines, we also have some sort of military training. but we do it at school. CAT in high school and ROTC in college. Back in 2003 when i was still in high school, our CAT was very strict. instead of having PE classes, we had CAT. ROTC is optional if the college you are in offers other Civic Welfare Training Services (CWTS) programs.

    I didnt want to take those subjects but i had no choice. better than going to the military ( my father told me to get in the army because he used to be a soldier)

    But Korea is worse. for those who dont like military training, that is.

  19. @DaneSpeaks yes, we had CAT. and to explain a bit more, CAT was mandatory for seniors in high school, and freshmen to juniors had the option of joining COCC (forgot what the abbreviation means), meaning that when they become seniors they will become Officers in CAT. Freshmen mostly do this, though, at least from my old school. Seniors that didn't go to COCC are only considered Privates unless you want to become a Medic (Master Sgt), which is of course a higher position from Private. A senior could also be promoted a higher rank as well if they are qualified (I know, because I was promoted from Medic to a Platoon Leader (2nd Lt.) when I was a senior). At least, this was what i remembered when i was in HS in the 90's. And in high school, not just males are in CAT but also females. ROTC (college) is different, however, as I've only seen males in it. I do think the females have a different name for theirs in college which is Women's Auxiliary or something.

  20. Question: age 37 refers to korean age or american age? Could you provide the source for this information please?

  21. What percentage of korean soldiers of the ROK married with children?

    1. Junior enlisted conscript draftees are generally not married and are strongly discouraged from doing so, and the conditions of their service are prohibitive with no special treatment for married men. Also, with a salary of $100 per month and essentially being physically confined to a military base or area of operations for the entire 21 mos. of your service, marriage during your service is impossible. However, it is not unheard of for farmers' sons from rural areas or older guys who got service waivers due to having studied overseas, being married, as they had the time and resources before reporting to do so. These guys, however, still do not get any special treatment, and with the exception of a few weeks of leave per year and occasional short visits, do not get to see their spouse for 21mos.

      NCOs and officers, though, receive professional salaries and get their own apartment, so they are capable of supporting a family and most get married right out of the academy. Incidentally, ROK military NCOs do not come up through the ranks like they do in the West. They enlist, like commissioned officers do, for four years, attend and graduate three months of NCO Academy, upon which they are immediately breveted as sergeants. As their salaries are competitive with the civilian sector, and with free housing, they usually get married right after graduation. Same with their commissioned counterparts. That said, the birth rate among the officer and NCO corps. in the ROK military is considerably higher than the general population at large simply b/c of these conditions. This does not apply to junior enlisted conscript-draftees, however, who are overwhelmingly single both before, during and after their service.

  22. how about if the guy was an only child in his family ?
    still has to do military service ?

    1. Waivers are available for only sons and additional sons if the first was drafted and the second or third, etc. is needed to work the land. (Obviously applies to farmers in rural areas only). Also, waivers are available for the sons of female officers and NCOs (women do not serve as junior enlisted or in any position below the rank of sergeant in the Korean military). This was offered as a way of encouraging more Korean women to join the military.

  23. Hi,
    I'm a bit confused about the reservist training. Is the reservist training completed by the 3-day reservist training per year (for upto 8 years after discharged from their 2-year army duty) or by the 100 hours?

  24. Hi,
    If u get permanent residence in korea and u are men, would its still be possible for you to have military service?
    Another question (hope don't get me wrong) There are times that you are naked, right?
    Hope to get a response, Thank You :))

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. I have two questions:
    1. Do they all go with nothing? I mean, they are not allowed to have their stuff there?
    2. Are visits allowed? Just family?

  27. Can foreigners visit their Korean friends in the army?

  28. I got a question though. What if a Korean 5 year old kid moved out of SK and lived in the Philippines or Indonesia (for example) and acquired dual citizenship, then decided to move back to SK after 15 years, does he need to enlist or it's just compulsory? I just read something about having US citizenship but not other nationalities.

    1. Korea does not permit dual citizenship. Only in certain niche circumstances is dual citizenship allowed.

  29. I served with a Katusa at Camp Casey during 1992. His name is Oh Jung Oh. I would like to get in touch. If you could be of any assistance I would be very grateful.

  30. Hi! I want to ask, during serving in army, do they allow the soldiers bring handphone ? Thanks!

    1. From what I hear (my source is a friend presently serving with whom I text CONSTANTLY) you are allowed to have a handphone (cellphone) following a period of time. The period of time, I believe, varies depending on where you are serving...but averages somewhere around 7 months.

  31. As a Korean who has lived abroad for all my life... i really have a question that I can't seem to find an answer... I'm currently 20, I have reported that I am studying abroad at the moment but in case of war, may I go from here (brazil) and fight for my country? Or is it impossible for me to volunteer?

  32. How do draftees know when it's time for them to enlist? I know that they receive a notice in the mail -- does it tell them a date and time for when they have to show up, or is it a notice to let them know that it's time for them to get the process going? I'm curious because I have heard peaple talk about having to miss certain events (weddings, etc), or to change plans that were planned way in advance due to their enlistments.
    Thank you!

  33. What is the possible service of a korean man in this service who have lots of tattoo?

  34. I think i've heard from a friend that if you are thr only son (also the only child of the family), you don't have to enlist. Is it true? It would be appreciated if you could explain about this. Thanks in advance

  35. Hi,
    I am a Korean citizen and a Canadian Permanent resident. I moved to Canada when I was 13, and I am 16 now. Is it possible for me to serve in the Canadian military to finish my Korean military requirements? Is there a way for me to serve in the Canadian army? Let me know everything.

  36. How about furlough? I can find no specifics about that anywhere. I heard someone say they got only 10 days in 24-26 months of military service... isn't that too little? And do they take their days in 1 period or can they split it up? And what about short visits home in between? Or visits to where they are positioned? Please someone tell me more about this. Personal experience/sources are appreciated.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...