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The Peninsula

South Korean Conscription and the Challenges of a Declining Population

Published November 8, 2023
Category: South Korea

At the Asian Games this September, Team Korea didn’t just get a gold medal in the popular video game League of Legends. The team also received an exemption from active-duty conscription into the armed forces of Korea. Maintaining an adequate fighting force is a critical issue for Korea, not just because of its unruly neighbor to the North but also because in recent years, its declining birthrate means the pool of eligible recruits continues to decline. Managing both the objective challenges of defending the nation, as well as social questions over who serves, is a critical issue for the Korean government to tackle.

Although many advanced states face demographic challenges, it is especially acute for the Korea and its military. Korea’s working age population began to decline in 2017 and the overall population in 2020. According to Korean government statistics from 2022, the total fertility  rate of a Korean woman declined to 0.78 and was the lowest among states in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. These broader trends in Korean society are expected to lower the pool of men eligible for conscription. Based on current defense policies and demographic trends, Korea will have only 220,000 men eligible for conscription by 2025, despite the official target to have at least 260,000 enter the military every year. Since it is unlikely Korea’s security situation will improve, policymakers must use its human resources as effectively as possible.

A conscripted military force is an integral part of Korean society. According to the Military Manpower Administration, the government agency responsible for managing the conscription system, the practice has a long history in Korea. Its modern iteration is based on Article 39 of the Korean constitution, which was promulgated after the establishment of the Republic of Korea and says that “all citizens shall have the duty of national defense.” Further details are laid out in the Military Service Act (MSA), which has since been revised several times after being introduced in 1949. Article 8 says that all men “shall be enlisted for the first citizen service when he attains the age of 18 years.” Article 12 adds that after a physical examination, conscripts are graded according to their capability and physical fitness. Those in grades 1 through 4 are enlisted into the military or other supporting roles based on their physical capabilities and qualifications. Those in grade 5 are instead required to perform labor in support of the military during wartime. Those in grade 7 are required to be examined the next year.

There are only a few exemptions to active-duty military service. Men found “incapable of performing military service due to any disease or mental or physical incompetence” are placed in grade 6, which is the only classification of men that are completely exempt from enlistment. Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2018, conscientious objectors are instead able to serve for three years in prisons or detention centers in order to fulfill their constitutional obligations. The only other class of men that do not fully enter into military service are described in Article 33-7 of the MSA. Men that have “special skills in the field of arts or sports” may instead serve as “art and sports personnel” on the recommendation of the culture minister. In lieu of military service, these men “promote culture and enhance national prestige” for a period of two years and ten months. This has historically been reserved for athletes who medal at international competitions like the Olympics, as well as highly esteemed classical musicians.

Given its nearly universal application to Korean men, military service remains a sensitive issue in contemporary Korean society. An office worker told The Korea Herald this June about his discomfort when revealing his exemption from military status. In October, lawmakers called for reforming the current system of military exemptions for athletes who receive gold medals in international competitions. “There are suspicions that the Asian Games were used as means to provide military exemptions to players,” said ruling party representative Lim Byung-hyon, according to the Yonhap News Agency. “Baseball and soccer teams tended to pick players among those who haven’t fulfilled their military service.” Three years ago, the Korean National Assembly passed the so-called “BTS Law,” which would allow male pop stars to defer enlistment until their 30th birthday, up from the previous 28th birthday. BTS and other Korean entertainers at the forefront of the Korea Wave have certainly contributed to raising Korea’s international prestige, and public opinion polls have found that there is majority support among respondents for granting exemptions to K-Pop stars like BTS. But while 60% of men in general told Gallup Korea in 2022 that they supported such a move, 40% of men in the prime enlistment age were opposed. Critics of broadening the exemption criteria point out that it is difficult to objectively define it. “If famous singers are exempted from military service, starting with BTS, there will probably be many cases of abuse,” one man told The Guardian last year.

Female participation in the military is another complicated issue for Korean society. According to Korea Bizwire, 16,000 women served in the Republic of Korea Army, and 9% of officers and non-commissioned officers were also women last year. Although women are able to serve in the Korean military, they are not conscripted like their male counterparts. Female conscription remains unpopular among the Korean public, with Hankyoreh reporting this July that a Realmeter opinion poll found 54.9% of respondents opposed female conscription, while only 36.4% supported it.

But polls also suggest younger people are more supportive, if for different reasons. In 2022, the Chosun Ilbo reported that 42% of young female respondents supported the conscription of both genders. One respondent pointed to the higher salaries of men and their ability to bond with other workers as demonstrating the value of military service. Previously, The Korea Herald reported back in 2021 that young Korean men supported universal conscription because it was unfair that men were forced to halt their careers for military service. In early October, Yonhap reported that the Korean Supreme Court ruled that male conscription did not infringe on equality between the sexes. But the court went on to say that the demographic situation in Korea may require a reconsideration of female conscription.

In the short term, Korean officials are considering other ways to ensure the military has adequate personnel to defend the nation. Under Defense Reform 2.0, which began under the preceding administration, Seoul is looking to build a lean, mean, fighting machine. This includes reducing the number of active duty soldiers, as well as augmenting them with advanced technologies. But experts warn that this may not be sufficient. During a May seminar hosted by the MMA and the Korean Retired Generals and Admirals Association, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Association leader Lee Han-ho pointed out that people play an important role in actual defense. “At the end of the day, people fight wars on the battlefield even if we develop and secure advanced weapons systems and incorporate technologies of the fourth industrial revolution,” he said.

While appreciating the Korea Wave’s role in public diplomacy, expanding the criteria for deferment may not be the best choice for Korea. With the demographic decline expected in the coming years, Korean policymakers must use its human resources appropriately. Korean society must also asks itself questions about the role of women in the armed forces. As long as the regional security situation in Northeast Asia remains tense, Korea must carefully consider how it can ensure its military has both the tools and the people needed to defend itself.

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo by JEON HAN from the Republic of Korea Flickr

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