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Conscription in South Korea

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Conscription, also known as mandatory military service or compulsory national service, is legislated in South Korea, with military service stated in Chapter II Article 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea for all citizens. The current Conscription Law, enacted in 1965, however, applies only to males, aged between 18 and 35, although women are allowed to enroll in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps as of 2010.



It is administered by the Military Manpower Administration. There are two tiers of service: active duty or non-active duty service. Length of service varies according to branches: 21 months for Army and Marine Corps, 23 months for Navy, 24 months for Air Force. The non-active duty service, e.g. civil service or public service worker, is from 24 months to 36 months. After conscripts finish their military service, they are automatically placed on the reserve roster, and are obligated to attend a few days of annual military training for 6 years.

South Korea currently has among the longest military service periods in the world, ranked behind Israel, Singapore, and North Korea. In recent years, there has been pressure from the public demanding either a shortening of the term or a switch to voluntary military service, and from experts calling for a gradual phasing out rather than complete abolition. However, in December 2010, after taking into consideration of the 2010 ROKS Cheonan sinking and Bombardment of Yeonpyeong incidents, the government confirmed that there will be no reduction of service periods.

Conscription examination

When a Korean man becomes of legal age, he is required to take a physical check-up to determine whether he is suitable for military service.

  • Grades 1-3: normal
  • Grade 4: alternative service; given to individuals that fulfil their military duties as a civil worker amongst civilians.
  • Grade 5: civil defence during peace time.
  • Grade 6: exemption from military service in both situation.
  • Grade 7: re-check-up within two years.
  • Alternative service

    Conscripts found to be unfit for military service for physical or mental reasons but not for exemption are placed in Grade 4. So they are obligated to do 2 years of civil service. This mainly consists of working in social welfare organization or public institution. Graduates from Meister high school or specialized vocational high school are able to work at selected workplaces where government allowed for 34 months instead of military service.

    Some of conscripts with Grade 1-3 can also choose to finish their duty as alternative service, if they have professional skills that can serve country. For example, conscripts with medical license may choose to serve as 'public health doctor', which is 3 years of obligation to work in local community health centers. This kind of alternative service includes 'public-service advocate' for licensed attorney at law, 'public quarantine veterinarian' for licensed veterinarian, and 'expert research personnel' for graduate students selected by national test, majored in tech and scientific fields. While these licensed, professional conscripts with Grade 1-3 may choose to serve as alternative service or not, those with Grade 4 have to serve as alternative service. Professional conscripts who did not choose alternative service are automatically conscripted as officers, such as military surgeons for licensed doctor, or military advocates for licensed attorney at law.


    Current conscription laws stipulate that athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions from military service and are placed in Grade 4. So they are required to do 4 weeks of basic military training and engage in sports field for 34 months. After that, they are automatically placed on the reserve roster, and are obligated to attend a few days of annual military training for six years. Actually, 34 months of duty period means that athletes are able to continue their own sports career. So after they finish 4 weeks of basic military training, they can return to their own sports field.

    Notable athletes who have been granted exemptions from military service are the bronze medal winning football team at the 2012 Summer Olympics and swimmer Park Tae-hwan, who reported for four weeks of basic training on 4 October 2012, and was discharged on 31 October from boot camp in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province. Also, tennis player Hyeon Chung has been granted 4 weeks basic training for his win in the 2014 Asian Games.


    The following data is from 'Regulation on Public Servant Compensation', implemented on 1 January 2017. Exchange rate as of 2 January 2017 (₩1210 to $1.00USD)


    The Department of Defense has revealed that it has failed to provide sneakers to 7,411 recruits who joined the military from 22 May to 4 June 2012, after the budget was insufficient for need. The Department originally projected the cost of each pair of sneakers to be 11,000 KRW However, the actual cost turned out to be 15,000 KRW.

    The office of National Assembly member Kim Kwang-jin of Democratic United Party revealed that cadets in Korea Military Academy were provided with sneakers worth 60,000 KRW and tennis shoes. Cadets in Korea Army Academy at Yeongcheon were provided with sneakers worth 64,250 KRW, in addition to running shoes and soccer shoes.


    The public is sensitive towards mandatory military service, but also has a low tolerance towards those who attempt to dodge or receive special treatment, especially after scandals of wealthy families caught trying to avoid their national duty. Those found or accused of draft dodging and negligence of duty often face harsh penalties and public backlash. According to Ha Jae-keun, a South Korean pop columnist, "The mood against draft-dodgers and negligence of duty is so hostile that nowadays entertainers feel it’s better to get it over and done with".

    Steve Yoo

    In 2002, right before Korean American pop singer Steve Yoo was due to be drafted for his military service, he gave up his Korean nationality and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was born in Seoul and migrated to the United States at the age of 13. The South Korean government considered it an act of desertion and deported him, banning him from entering the country permanently.

    Song Seung-heon

    In late 2004, it was revealed that actor Song Seung-heon had avoided his draft by taking medication to fail the military physical examination. Song had previously been exempted by claiming to have severe diabetes and high blood pressure, but that was found by the South Korean government to be false. Amidst press coverage and public outcry, Song publicly apologised and agreed to immediately serve his two-year term in the military. Song was discharged on 15 November 2006 with the rank of Corporal.

    MC Mong

    On 11 April 2011, rapper MC Mong was cleared of intentionally pulling out healthy teeth to be exempted from military duty but was sentenced to a suspended jail term of 6 months, probation for one year, and 120 hours of community service, for deliberately delaying enlistment on false grounds. The court acknowledged that there was a delay in his military enlistment, however, they were unable to determine whether he was guilty of extracting teeth for the purpose of avoiding his military draft. In September 2011, it was reported that Mong has been banned by Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) from appearing in its TV shows, for draft dodging.

    Kim Mu-yeol

    In June 2012 Kim Mu-yeol came under growing public criticism over allegations he dodged his compulsory military service. In a report released by the Korean Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), Kim was deemed fit to serve in active duty as a level two recruit after a March 2001 physical examination. However, throughout 2007 to 2009, Kim was granted postponement on the grounds that he was taking civil service examinations or had been admitted to a work training facility, neither of which took place. During this time he reportedly earned approximately ₩300 million from films, musicals and television work. In December 2009, he received his final notice for enlistment, having used up the 730 days allowed for postponement. He submitted a request to change his military status in January 2010 because of a knee injury, which was rejected. Finally, a valid exemption was granted on the grounds that he was a "low-income individual" and the sole provider for his family. BAI's contention was that Kim's income is substantially higher than the standard for disqualification due to poverty; thus, the Military Manpower Administration was negligent in their duties by granting the exemption.

    Kim’s agency Prain TPC defended him, stating that Kim had been supporting his family by working as a security guard, construction worker and at a mobile phone factory since his late teens. When his father collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, the treatments incurred a lot of debt for the family. Their worsening financial condition caused them to become totally dependent on Kim, resulting in his said filing for an exemption in 2010. Given the publicity, a reinvestigation into the case was launched and Kim was asked by the production company to leave the film 11 A.M. (he was replaced by Choi Daniel). On 4 October 2012, Kim released a statement that though there was no wrongdoing on his part, he had decided to voluntarily enter the army "to recover his honor damaged by the rumors."


    Conscription in South Korea Wikipedia

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