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The Peninsula

Improvements in military service without accountability

Published June 28, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • In 2020, the ROK military allowed soldiers to more liberally use their cell phones in their barracks to increase the mental health of conscripts.
  • A recent survey by the newspaper Hankook Ilbo revealed that the new policy was overwhelmingly popular, and may have improved soldiers’ mental health.
  • This comes amid recent reports of sexual assault, harassment, and suicide in the military.

Implications: The South Korean government sometimes addresses abuses in society with superficial fixes that do not touch on deeper systemic problems. The recent policy changes around cellphone usage in the military have marginally improved the quality of life for soldiers, but it was not the government’s first attempt to address abuses facing conscripts with surface-level changes. Following the high-profile death of a soldier in 2014 who was repeatedly bullied and assaulted, the Ministry of Defense allowed more family visitations and renovated the barracks to be more comfortable. However, these changes did not fully abate cases of sexual assault, bullying, and suicide in the military. As a consequence, recent headlines on this issue have once again generated public demand for action. Advocates for more thorough reforms call for reducing the influence of commanders in trials involving abuses in the military as a way to increase accountability.

Context: As South Korea confronts demographic pressures, the Ministry of Defense faces the challenge of recruiting a sufficient number of soldiers to meet the country’s security needs. In addition to rationalizing the country’s defense priorities, the military leadership has also sought to increase the volunteer force. Nonetheless, the institution plans to continue relying heavily on conscription for the foreseeable future. This directly conflicts with growing resistance against conscription from young Korean men. A recent Gallup poll found that Koreans preferred a voluntary military system over a draft more than they did four years ago (up to 43% from 35% in 2016). Weakening public support for conscription amid the growing need to substitute falling manpower availability may spur the military to address deeper issues of soldiers’ health and safety as a means of promoting recruitment.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sean Blanco, Marina Dickson, and Jina Park. Picture from the flickr account of  Ser André Gonzalez

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