South Korean army soldiers march during a military exercise in Paju near the border with North Korea. Pic: AP.

Conscription in South Korea is required for all eligible men, but eligibility may be determined by their family’s socio-economic status, reports Joseph Kim

South Korea has the longest mandatory military service period in the world. Each year, South Korea sends over 26,000 men to its armed forces because all able men aged 18-38 are required to serve up to 2 years, depending on the branch of military. However, of people jailed around the world for conscientious objection against conscription, nine out of 10 are South Koreans.

According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released last year, South Korea has put more than 660 conscientious objectors behind bars annually since 2004. The report focused on the objections by Jehovah Witnesses who claim that from 1950, 17,208 Witnesses have been sentenced for refusing to take up arms. It is an issue that is common knowledge in South Korea and often overshadows opponents to mandatory service from other philosophically motivated causes.

WithoutWar is a Seoul-based advocacy group fighting for anti-war policies not inclusive of religious ideologies. Some of its members are currently incarcerated or have impending court trials. And this is no easy decision. Objectors normally serve an 18-month prison sentence and this decision will likely haunt them in their future careers. One WithoutWar member facing trial is a young man who only gave his surname Kim. His opposition to mandatory military service is on socio-economical grounds. “I don’t know why I have to go to the military because the richer you are, the easier it becomes to escape,” Kim says, and it seems his words do bear some merit.

A survey conducted by the government-run Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET) last summer showed that young men from wealthier, better educated families are more likely to avoid military service.

Data from 39,096 male college graduates over the course of a 3-year period found that sons of high school-educated fathers (87.5%) had a higher chance of serving active duty than men whose fathers are college graduates (84.1%). This discrepancy is further observed through income, as seen above, where military participation decreases as one’s parents wealth increases. This trend excludes many young men whose parents were unemployed as they receive a military exemption with the expectation that they would support their family’s income.

In addition, 7.5 percent of men with fathers with college degrees were able to participate in alternative services, normally for those deemed physically unfit, compared to 5.5 percent of men who had fathers who were less educated.

The researcher behind the survey, Yang Jeong-seung, commented on these irregularities to South Korea’s Chosun saying, “Generally, if parents have higher education or more income than the average person, their children’s health is supposed to be better. Yet how they were classified according to the physical examination tests were opposite to logic.”

The South Korean government, however, cites North Korea’s security threats as an important reason to not accept conscientious objectors or provide different means to serve the country without bearing arms.

Seoul’s Military Manpower Administration estimates that the country sends 300 to 800 conscientious objectors or draft evaders to prison each year. Among them will most likely be another young man protesting social rights, who made his commitment to avoid mandatory military service through WithoutWar last week.