Military Personnel

Year Total Army Navy MC AF
2005 681 548 41 27 65
2014 630 495 41 29 65
522 387 41 29 65
-108 -108 ·
The Defense Ministry said 16 December 2020 that in 2021 it would complete the process of shortening the mandatory military service period for all able-bodied men from about two years to 18 months. Other reforms include raising the proportion of female service members from the current 7.4 percent. Starting in 2021, the government will disregard a citizen's level of education in determining whether they're fit for active military service if they meet certain physical criteria. Current law requires at least a high school diploma, and those without one are assigned to the reserves. The move is aimed at increasing fairness and it's expected to impact thousands of applicants each year who don't have a high school diploma but who can perform active military service.

South Korean men and women serving in the military in 2021 can now apply for specific start date and a specific military unit. Previously, applicants could choose only the month in which they would start their service the following year. The Military Manpower Administration said it will start taking applications in July 2020 through its website and smartphone app. The agency said, however, that application dates differ from region to region, so it's a good idea to check periodically.

Global stars BTS and other popular K-pop boy bands were not exempt from mandatory military service. The 21 November 2019 announcement came from the culture minister who said that unlike classical arts or sports, it is difficult to fix the selection criteria for the popular culture and arts fields, making it difficult to institutionalize a waiver system. The move came as the government had been facing growing calls to allow BTS members to be waived from military service in a similar manner to award-winning athletes or classical musicians. A government task force has been working to change the guidelines for military conscription and waivers, to increase fairness.

South Korea's National Assembly passed a bill 01 December 2020 to revise a military service law, that would allow members of the globally popular musical group BTS to postpone their enlistment. South Korean men must join the military service by the age of 28 in principle. But outstanding athletes are allowed to defer their duties. Many of the group's fans had been calling for a revision to the law, as its oldest member is 27. The revision could add highly acclaimed pop culture artists to the list of those allowed deferrals. Local media said the revision will likely allow BTS members to postpone their enlistment to the age of 30. The members say they will do their military duty at some point. Fans are welcoming the revision, but some people say the group should not be given special treatment.

The ministry plans to lessen the nation's standing body of armed forces by 24,000 in 2020. It said in December 2019 that it had already realized its goal of shrinking the force this year from the previous year by 20,000. "Despite the shortage of manpower the military structure is being strengthened towards increased readiness in mind through the increase of personnel of executives and civilian workers in the military, women in the military as well as the advancement of weapons and equipment."

About 90-percent of South Korean men applying for mandatory military service join the armed forces as active duty troops. The rest are put on reservist duty or are granted a waiver depending on their physical assessment. The number of men in their 20s in South Korea was 350,000 in 2017, but that number is expected to drop to between 220,000 and 250,000 by 2022 as the country's decades-long low birthrate begins to bite. At the current rate, the pool of military servicemen is expected to shrink by 20 to 30,000 every year from 2023.

All able-bodied South Korean men aged 18 and over are required to serve in the military for about 2 years. Under existing law, anyone who refused faced a prison term of up to 3 years. Conscientious objection had long been a hotly debated subject in South Korea. In June 2018, the Constitutional Court upheld the criminalization of conscientious objection but ordered the conscription law be amended by the end of 2019 to authorize an alternative service. The landmark Supreme Court ruling accepted religious and moral principles as legitimate reasons to oppose military service, paving the way for conscientious objectors to avoid becoming convicts.

The Ministry of National Defense and the Military Manpower Administration said 30 September 2019 that the country was expected to revise its physical requirements and standards for active duty troops starting next year with the aim of applying the changes gradually in 2021 to minimize any confusion. This included changing the current standards constituting obesity, measured by the body mass index as well as high blood pressure to make both standards less strict than the ones currently applied.

A National Assembly committee approved bills 18 November 2019 to implement an alternative military duty system for conscientious objectors to national conscription. The parliamentary defense committee passed legislation establishing the terms for alternative duty. Those that refuse to enter into conventional military service will serve their country at correctional and other facilities for 36 months, nearly double the length of service for Army draftees. A 29-member panel would be established under the Military Manpower Administration to review applications from current conscripts to transfer into the alternative system. A bill to revise the Military Service Act states that those serving alternative duty who fail to respond to their draft notice without prior notification will face a prison sentence of up to three years. Transfer applicants who falsely testify or submit forged documents will face a jail term of one to five years, while those who assist them will face one to ten years.

The South Korean military considered easing conscription standards to increase the number of active duty soldiers as the country faced a demographic cliff in the coming years. For decades the only alternative was conviction and jail, and with it lifelong stigma, but in total tens of thousands of conscientious objectors, many of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, had been willing to pay that price to adhere to their beliefs.

Dozens of South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses in suits and ties lined up to enter a prison -- to begin training as administrators, rather than the jail terms they used to face as conscientious objectors. The first batch of conscientious objectors started their training for alternative military service on 26 October 2020 following a new law allowing those refusing to take up arms for religious reasons to do other forms of service. After three weeks of training, the 63 objectors will perform duties like supporting facility management at detention facilities. While they do not receive basic military training, they were given the same treatment as active-duty service members like monthly payment and vacations. By law, all able-bodied South Korean men must serve in the military for around two years. But the National Assembly passed a bill last December 2019 allowing conscientious objectors to do 36 months of alternative service at local correctional facilities.

The Defense Ministry called 06 September 2016 for taking a cautious approach in switching the mandatory conscription system to a voluntary military system in consideration of the country’s security and fiscal conditions. A ministry official said that those calling for the all-volunteer military system claimed that the nation’s armed forces should be reduced to 300-thousand from the current 620-thousand, but such a move is impossible under the circumstances.

The official said that the government was working to reduce its troops to 522-thousand by 2022 under the basic plan of defense reforms in order to maintain a proper level of combat power. The official added that the government set the figure of 522-thousand considering the country’s birthrate estimates and forecasts on military resources. The remarks come amid a sparked debate on replacing the current mandatory military service with a voluntary system among political heavyweights.

All males, except for a small percentage of individuals considered physically or socially undesirable for military service, could be drafted into the military. The law requires military service for virtually all male citizens. Military service lasts between 24 and 27 months, depending on the branch of service. In 2011, the military service period was reduced to between 21 and 24 months. However, the law does not allow for conscientious objectors, who can receive a maximum three-year prison sentence. Conscientious objectors who are sentenced to more than one year and six months in prison are exempt from further military service and reserve duty obligations and are not subject to further fines or other punishment. Most conscientious objectors are sentenced to one year and six months in prison.

Persons who have completed their military service obligation and subsequently become conscientious objectors are subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. Reserve duty obligation lasts for eight years, and there are three reserve duty exercises per year. The fine varies depending on jurisdiction, but typically individuals are fined 200,000 Korean won (KRW) ($166) for the first conviction. Fines are increased by 100,000 KRW ($83) for each subsequent conviction. The law puts a ceiling on the fine at two million KRW ($1,660) per conviction. Courts have the option, instead of levying fines, to sentence habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms.

In 1990 there were 407,000 males nineteen years of age who were required to register for military service. Approximately 9.2 percent of these young men were rejected for conscription for one of the following reasons: having a physical or mental disability; possessing a criminal record; being an orphan; and being born out of wedlock or having one parent who was not a South Korean citizen. Conscripts were required to have at least an elementary school education; 77 percent of those drafted had at least a high school education.

The Military Manpower Agency was responsible for assigning recruits to the army, navy, marines, the Korean Augmentation of the United States Army (KATUSA), and the combat police units of the Korean National Police. Recruits could request assignment to a particular service and were assigned based on their education, technical skills, and physical condition. About 85 percent of eligible recruits were drafted for periods of between thirty and thirty-six months. Candidates for the KATUSA program were required to be high school graduates with some English-language training. In 1990 approximately 5,000 men in KATUSA served with the United States Army units in South Korea. In 1990 the air force was an all-volunteer force.

The conscription system was flexible and allowed most young men to plan their service in a way that would promote their individual career goals. High school graduates who had been accepted into a college or technical school or who were attending such schools were granted deferments. Conscripts with good education records and aptitudes suited to particular military specialties were selected to be trained as specialists in combat support branches such as signals, ordnance, and engineers. Even conscripts assigned to combat, however, were encouraged to take classes during their terms of duty to prepare for employment when they left the service.

The army, navy, and air force each had a full range of recruit training centers, schools for technical military occupational specialties, and officer training courses. Army recruits were transported from provincial induction centers to one of the Second Army's recruit training centers for basic training. Each branch of the army had one or more schools that offered curricula for enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers. The large number of schools and the diversified training programs available to servicemen supported the army's need for skilled personnel to use, maintain, repair, and resupply combat forces during wartime. The air force had schools for pilots, air technicians, communication and electronics specialists, aircraft maintenance specialists, and air traffic controllers. The navy had its own schools oriented to the needs of the three fleets and the marine corps.

All officers and enlisted personnel were closely supervised and had to obey strict security regulations that limited their contacts with civilians, including their own families. All military personnel were provided with food, clothing, housing, and medical services. A variety of entertainment and recreational programs were organized on military installations to reduce boredom and promote the physical health and morale of service personnel.

For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are concerns that bullying and violence comes along with that tradition. In July 2011, a marine corporal shot and killed four of his comrades, later saying that he had been bullied. The summer of 2014 saw at least 4 conscript suicides that may have been tied to hazing. In June, a sergeant went on a deadly shooting spree, reportedly as revenge for repeated bullying, killing five men in his unit before attempting to kill himself. In July, the death of a conscript named Yoon Seung-joo was blamed on beatings dealt out by his fellow soldiers.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense officials have publicly stated that this kind of violence within military barracks will not be tolerated. They also say they've encouraged abused soldiers to speak out.

A South Korean court ruled 18 October 2016 in favor of a man who refused to take part in the country's mandatory military service on religious grounds. The Gwangju District Court dismissed an appeal by prosecutors, upholding a previous ruling that found the man not guilty. It also acquitted two other so-called "conscientious objectors" who had been sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison. All three of the men are Jehovah's Witnesses, who say they are prohibited by their faith from entering the military. The court said the men's refusal of mandatory military service was consistent with their religious faith and conscience, considering how they were brought up. It cited an international trend of recognizing conscientious objectors, and pointed to a growing consensus that some kind of alternative military service is needed in such cases. The Defense Ministry urged the court to use caution and prudence, as cases like this may affect national security, cause a decrease of morale for active-duty servicemen, and enable others to evade military service.

The country's Constitutional Court determined in its ruling on 28 June 2018 ruled it unconstitutional that the country's conscription system bans alternative measures for conscientious objectors, but that it is not against the constitution to criminally punish such objectors. The nine-judge panel led by Chief Justice Lee Jin-sung delivered the decision following a constitutional appeal and petition for adjudication on the constitutionality of clause one under the Military Service Act's Article 88 submitted by a conscientious objector and the court.

The ruling forced the current conscription law to expire at the end of 2019, and that the government must amend the law to introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors. Immediately after the ruling was issued, the Defense Ministry said it would quickly come up with reasonable alternatives to mandatory military service. The ministry said it has been reviewing alternatives that will be fair and not abused by draft dodgers. The decision is the fourth of its kind by the Constitutional Court, after it ruled in favor of the state in 2004 and 2011, citing fulfilling one's military obligations overrides freedom of conscience given the unique security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

The Defense Ministry said 29 July 2018 that alternative service should be unappealing so recruits would rather choose to serve in the military. A senior official of the ministry made the remark during a press conference when asked about concerns that an alternative service may be used as a means to dodge mandatory military service. The official said the ministry will create an organization that will judge whether applicants for an alternative system are trying to avoid conscription.

Regarding the duration of alternative service, the official said it should be long enough to discourage potential misuse of the system, but added the final decision will be made after collecting opinions. There's a strong possibility the government will soon provide alternative military service for conscientious objectors after the Constitutional Court ruled that not allowing alternative measures for them does not conform to the Constitution. Conscientious objectors refer to those who refuse the country's mandatory military service on the grounds of freedom of religion and conscience.

Training for military reserve forces in 2020 would only last for a day and even that for just four hours due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Training for the country's 2,750,000 strong reserve forces, which was supposed to kick off in March, had been delayed multiple times due to the virus. However, Seoul's defense ministry said 29 July 2020 that the training exercises will resume from September with individuals able to choose between the morning or afternoon sessions. All South Korean males who have completed their mandatory military service are required to go through one to three days of annual training for six years following their honorable discharge. This was the first time since 1968 that training times for reserve forces have been altered.

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