Saturday, December 22, 2012

What Conscription Really Means for Koreans

I was recently contacted by Beyond Hallyu to write a piece on conscription. Beyond Hallyu is a British site about Korea and Korean culture. I found their articles to be thought-provoking and honest, and they get my respect for not being another foreigner-run site about how awesome Korea is.

I'm just going to repost what I wrote for them with a few added corrections since I'm a lazy shit. Thanks to Lizzie and Beyond Hallyu for considering what I write is interesting and good enough to be on their site. 

I got a little irked a few days ago when I was out with a buddy of mine and topic of conscription came up. The guy was a conservative American and he thought it’d be a good idea to enact such a policy in the US. When I mentioned that then he’d have to go the military too, he said it’s all good because he took a few ROTC classes in college. It was a bit irritating talking to a guy who has never been a soldier thinks he knows what it’s like because he took a few classes in school, but I realized a couple of things from this experience.
First, never talk about politics with your friends unless you agree on everything and want to maintain that friendship. Second, this chat reminded me of several other times when people who don’t know what they were talking about boasted their supposed knowledge on soldiering. Surprisingly, most of the time, the perpetrators were Korean women spouting the personal benefits of conscription allegedly brings. When it comes from an older man who has served, it has some merit (although I would still disagree), but when it comes from somebody who has never laced up a pair of combat boots or stood hours in the blistering cold while clutching a rifle, it pisses me off. 
However, it’s not the people themselves, but rather the mentality they represent about Korean society that bother me. Military service went from “defending the nation and freedom” to a stepping stone in life. That’s what conscription means for most Koreans. It’s so widely believed even Korean women who don’t have to serve, preach it. Bring up conscription with a Korean and you’ll get the same tired responses justifying it. 
“It turns you into a man.” Is one of the most common arguments I’ve been fed. “You learn about life,” is another one. This is the type of mentality that permeates Korean society when it comes to the issue of conscription. Never mind the North Korean threat or upholding democratic principles, “being a man” is the reason we spend tax payers’ money to fund the imprisonment of young men for two years against their will. 
I won’t even go into the multiple facets of absurdity in the claim that military service makes someone a “man.” Whatever that even means. I’ll just say that if you need to be conditioned to take orders to be a man, you aren’t really a man in my book. 
It concerns me that such a policy that flies in the face of the very principles Korea is supposed to stand for is received with such nonchalant acceptance. There is no questioning conscription. Not only is it not on the table for debate, but it’s not even in the room. It is even stranger considering most Koreans don’t even perceive North Korea as a threat except for when the media decides to remind us. Nobody expects a war, and my experiences in the military have shown me that even the military doesn't expect it either. The lackluster training and poor quality of life for the troops reflect that attitude. Nobody seems to understand soldiers exist to kill and die for their country if the need arises. When you reduce the military into merely a “stepping stone,” you are taking the sacrifices of soldiers for granted. So no, conscription isn’t preparation for war, it’s just “something you do” to “become a man” if you’re a Korean male. 
Frankly, for many Koreans spoiled by modern comforts, conscription does become a sort of ritual into adulthood. Military service is the first time they are exposed to hard work and physical labor. While it is true it’s the first time they experience real hardship and learn some life lessons, I’d also say simply living life and getting older provides the same benefits without the added hassle of being held against your will and being paid less than 50 cents an hour. 
The people around me told me about how much I will learn and manlier I will become after my service. I ended up with several health issues and my English deteriorated. Personally, the only thing I've learned was how much more I hate the Korean government and conscription. 
So if you ever meet a Korean guy stressing about entering the military or a ROK conscript in uniform, don’t feed him the same old “you’re a man now” nonsense. Give him a different lie. Tell him you’re thankful for his service and sacrifice. At least that lie makes more sense.


  1. I just read your article on and even though I can't say I completely understand your feelings (I'm not Korean, or male) it has definitely given me an insight into Korea's conscription policy. The fact that this came about after you spoke to your Conservative American friend (I am too) intrigued me. What stood out the most for me was the paragraph about South Korea not really expecting a war and the trivialising of what being a soldier really means. Great, honest article.

  2. Its pretty dumb that you get angry for him having an opinion on it. You don't have to have served in the military to have a valid opinion on conscription. Just like you don't have to be an economist to have an opinion on taxes. Also your claim that being conservative makes you pro-conscription is wrong. I am a conservative and i'm against conscription because it is an abuse of personal liberty.

  3. Reading your second point, I was reminded of reading a couple of articles in the Defense Daily after the PFC Kim incident in the summer of 2005. The first was basically telling conscripts to suck it up and the second was an exhortation to be optimistic. I didn't pay heed to the first but the second pissed me off. The first was written by an old man, an NCO, and the second was written by a female college student. There's something infuriating about someone who doesn't know what it's like telling you what to think.

    In response to Anonymous's comment above, you're right. You don't have to be an economist to have an opinion on taxes. But it sure helps you avoid making dumb-ass statements.

    1. A female college student talking about military life? That's laughable. Very few things people say offend me, but a Korean woman (who hasn't served) lecturing me about the military will make evoke rage. Get back to me on "my duties as a man" when you've had a brother or father die during service.

  4. I agree with you: conscription is not good. Given the size of South Korea, if the government declared neutrality, like the Swiss, then conscription could go away. The Swiss do have a practical reserve training for all male citizens, but it is nothing like conscription. Also, given the advances in military technology, a conscripted fighting force of human power seems pointless. Clearly, the existing system in South Korea is just a hold-over from years past. If the goal of serving has been re-purposed in the mind of citizens, then even society agrees that conscription is no longer a valid approach to the original problem.