In Korea, every adult male has a common nightmare. Between the ages of 19 and 37, one must serve in the military for 21 months. During that time, all freedom is lost: one is stuck within the boundaries of the military barracks, loses connections to the civilian world, and is incessantly under the eyes of harsh superior officers. In addition to these tribulations, one must go through strenuous training that can be hazardous if not taking the right precautions. Indeed, the same goes for any other militaries across the globe. However, the biggest difference is that Korean males are not given the choice to enlist or not.
Of course, there is a convincing reason why the South Korean government continues to require new bodies for the military. The reason lies just 35 miles north of Seoul. North Korea continues to threaten the safety of its southern neighbor by continually expanding its already large military and by developing nuclear weapons. Even with the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, smaller skirmishes have occurred, some of the most notable ones being the Axe Murder Incident on 18 August 1976, the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong on 29 June 2002, and the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong on 23 November 2010. Although these conflicts were tragic and led to the death of numerous soldiers, it was because the South had an active military that these incidents did not exacerbate. From the federal perspective, having almost half of the population available for war is beneficial as the nation can strengthen its security. However, is it truly ethical to take away one's freedom for such reasons? Questions are raised as controversy revolves around issues regarding morals and welfare.
I am a firm believer that serving one's country is paramount. I believe that it is the duty of a citizen to give something back to his or her country for the freedoms and opportunities that it has offered. Why would anyone desire to live in a country that he or she does not want to serve? To me, it makes no sense. Furthermore, by serving our country, we are defending our heritage, our culture, and our beliefs from any external or domestic threat. Just like our forefathers who protested against Imperial Japan in order to protect our culture and values, we should too, have that patriotic mindset and do what we can to protect our homeland.
Indubitably, people can argue that military service is not the only method to aid our country. It is true that one can help by being part of domestic services, such as the police force, Red Cross, or fire department. While these services are important, I think that serving the military is just as essential. Because of our ever-threatening neighbor, showing signs of vulnerability in the military can be hazardous. Who knows what North Korea is planning? At times, its leaders seem compromising, and at others, quarrelsome. Because North Korea’s leaders are extremely haphazard, we always have to be on guard and prepare for the very worst.
This leads to the very point that the government has no choice other than to make military services mandatory. North Korea has one of the largest military forces in the world, with over one million soldiers available for combat. In order to defend against such a big force, we would need as many able bodies as possible. Although there are American soldiers stationed at the 38th Parallel, that number is insufficient to defend against the whole of North Korea. If people are given the choice to decide whether to serve or not, I believe that most would dismiss the former option. This is mainly because of the way the military is portrayed and viewed by the people. Most Koreans study hard and desire to have stable, good-paying careers. However, being in the military for two years can be an obstacle to these goals. With almost two whole years essentially lost, Korean males lose their foothold in society and are left behind. In a nation where competition is so fierce, males would have a extremely difficult time catching up with the rest of the populace. Furthermore, unlike the U.S. military, the Korean military offers close to no income. A private in the Korean military only receives approximately $121.2 dollars in one month. This is below the minimum wage set in Korea. In contrast, those in the U.S. National Guard receive around $200-300 a month for taking part in training for two days. With wages being that low, it is near impossible to even buy the bare necessities.
Also, there are numerous reports of violence within the Korean military. In one particular case, first class private Yun-ilbyeong was tortured and beat to death by his superior officers. Because some soldiers are bullied or put in too much stress, the sagging morale has led to suicides and mass shootings. This was brought to life in 2014, when Sergeant Lim shot dead five of his comrades and wounded seven in a shootout. As it turns out, Lim was on the list for those who needed special attention because he could not adapt to the military life. This was not the only time when a mass shooting occurred. In 2005, a private set off a grenade and opened fire in an outpost near North Korea, killing eight comrades and wounding two others. Furthermore, in 2011, a Marine Corps colonel killed four and wounded one in a shootout in Ganghwa Island.
As these tragedies show, the current environment in the Korean military is abysmal. With these incidents occurring more frequently now than ever, it is no wonder why people do not want to join the military. Ultimately, these issues become debates between what one values more: freedom or the desire to serve the country. Both have their pros and cons. In exchange for freedom, our military defenses would become weaker and we would be left more vulnerable. In exchange for mandatory service, soldiers would continue to be left in the stressful atmosphere with small wages.
There is really no true answer to this debate. Both sides have perfectly sound arguments to advocate their statements. The true solution does not lie within both extremes of the argument. The best solution to this issue would be to increase wages for the soldiers and to change the atmosphere of the military to prevent domestic violence by further enforcing severe punishment, such as extending the length of prison time on those who abuse others. Furthermore, just like the U.S. military, giving more benefits to Korean soldiers would encourage more people to enlist. If I had to choose between the two extreme sides, I would ultimately support mandatory military service. It is true that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of individual lives and freedom. Although we do lose our freedom for almost two years, I do firmly believe that it is a sacrifice we should be willing to make for as long as North Korea is a threat. Troubles that occur within the Korean military can be resolved internally. However, the issue between the North and South goes beyond our boundary of control. That is why focusing on the tension between the North should be the priority. Now is not the time to be selfishly thinking about ourselves individually. We have to be united as a community and be prepared to defend our families, cultures, and values. Because of our unique status of being a split nation and the harsh reality that our safety cannot be assured, two years of service is not that long. We have to remind ourselves that our northern neighbor has a ten year military conscription. Instead of completely abolishing our military conscription, we should look for other alternatives that can satisfy the needs of everyone.