[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Draftees, or volunteers?The recent ruling of the Seoul Southern District Court in favor of three young men who refused military service for religious reasons has prompted a national debate about conscientious objection. Under current law, conscientious objection is not officially recognized and about 1,000 persons are currently in jail for refusing military service. The court cited resolutions of the UN Commission on Human Rights supporting the right of conscientious objection. The court’s ruling presents a challenge to current law that will ensure that the debate over conscientious objection continues for some time.
Snap polls after the ruling show that about 70 percent of the people oppose the court’s ruling. The mainstream media has been critical of the ruling, citing the duty of citizens to defend the nation. In a nation where nearly all men have experienced military service, the idea that some people can get out of military service for religious convictions does not have much appeal.
The debate on conscientious objection should begin with a hard look at military conscription itself. Since World War II, most democratic nations have moved away from military conscription in favor of professional volunteer armies. Democracies that have maintained conscription have developed alternatives to the army, such as national service in civilian life, that can accommodate the needs of conscientious objectors.
The advantages of a volunteer army are obvious: People serve by choice and are paid for their work. Relying on volunteers helps the military develop higher standards of professionalism because it does not need to focus on managing masses of conscripted soldiers. It takes the emotional issues of draft evasion and conscientious objection off the table.
The disadvantages of a volunteer army are also obvious: People need to be paid enough to serve. The need to attract people into the military requires an active recruitment effort that includes financial incentives. Military pay uses up large parts of the military budget in countries with volunteer armies.
Is a volunteer military appropriate for Korea? With the coming drawdown in U.S. forces in Korea, the question may seem absurd, but it must be asked if the debate over conscientious objection is to move forward.
Two things are necessary for a volunteer army to work in Korea: enough willing soldiers and enough money to support them. The birth rate in Korea is now one of the lowest in the world, and there are few signs that it will increase soon. Korea cannot rely on immigrants to serve in its armed forces. Giving women more roles in the military will help increase the pool of potential soldiers, but this will not offset the continued decline in the number of young people in Korea. With the pool of potential volunteers limited by demographics, military salaries will need to rise to an appropriate level to attract enough people into the service.
The cost of building a volunteer army in Korea would be immense. A volunteer army would not need to be as large as the current army, but it would still have to be large enough to defend the nation against an invasion from North Korea. Salaries and other benefits, such as free college education, would have to be very competitive to attract enough young people. This would require a dramatic increase in the military budget, which would require increased tax revenues. The heavier tax burden would sap the economy of much of its dynamism.
The other side of the equation, of course, is the strength of North Korean forces. This is the great wild card in discussions of the security situation in the Korean Peninsula. Some people believe that North Korean soldiers are barely fed and would flee instead of fight. Others believe that North Korea has a highly dedicated fighting force that is armed with several nuclear weapons. Whatever the reality, national security must err on the safe side, which means that South Korea will need a strong national defense until North Korean weakness is proven or until reunification becomes a reality.
With a volunteer army possible, but impractical, the question returns to conscription. Conscription is built on the idea that all citizens have a duty to sacrifice for the security of the nation. The idea can only work if it requires sacrifice from all. Selective conscription during the Vietnam War has left a permanent scar on American society.
Exempting conscientious objectors from their duty to defend the nation would leave similar scars on Korean society. Instead, the type and length of sacrifice required to meet the duty should be open for discussion because a strong defense requires a strong society. Sending 1,000 young men to jail for refusing military service is a waste of resources that weakens society.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser