[Viewpoint]Respect soldiers, reduce scandals

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[Viewpoint]Respect soldiers, reduce scandals

The perennial issue of whether all Korean young men serve their military duty on an equal basis has reared its head again because some youths who weren’t qualified still served at private companies designated by the Office of Military Manpower Administration as a substitute for military duty. If Korea adopts a volunteer army system, such controversies or draft-dodging scandals might disappear.
However, considering the current national security situation, in which we have to face a 1 million-strong North Korean army along the Demilitarized Zone, as well as the economic power of the country and the desires of its people, I believe Korea should maintain its present mandatory military service system for a considerable amount of time.
In the past couple of years, the government, spearheaded by the Ministry of Defense and Office of Military Manpower Administration, has studied various ways to root out the chronic draft dodging scandals. To a large extent, it has been able to reduce irregularities in physical check-ups and in the assignments of conscripts. Still, the privilege of alternative service allowed for skilled workers has been abused. The techniques of draft dodging have also developed, making more difficult to prevent it. Ten cops can’t catch one thief.
Whenever draft dodging scandals break out, most young men who responded to the call to serve their country and their family members become despondent and feel a sense of deprivation. This will, of course, hurt the morale of the troops and ultimately undermine the combat capability of the military. For that reason, the unreasonable alternative service system needs to be changed as soon as possible.
It is, of course, important to wield the stick against draft dodgers. However, we should also develop policies in the opposite direction. If we develop ways to make young conscripts and their family members take pride in serving in the army, the tendency to avoid military duty will diminish and draft dodging scandals will disappear.
The main reason young people try to avoid military service is that the army deprives them of the chance to further their studies and be employed. A plan to reduce the term of military service by six months in eight years -- from the present 24 months to 18 months in 2014 -- has been put in place.
But it is important to use that time to drill the military, prepare equipment, educate soldiers more effectively, and create an atmosphere in which conscripts are encouraged to use their free time for self-improvement. Besides making the time spent in the military more useful and effective, it is urgent to improve the military barracks facilities and the military camp environment. Of course, the military barracks can’t be upgraded to the level of luxury apartments with the government budget and the soldiers cannot be allowed to enjoy a cultural life equal to that of ordinary citizens.
Therefore, we must introduce a new system in which soldiers can satisfy their intellectual and cultural needs during their leave-time or holidays. I think it is necessary to develop a system like a special discount for servicemen on active duty, so soldiers can have easier access to culture through such media as cinema, drama, books and CDs and get discounts in transportation, food, lodging, travel and other areas. Another reason people are cynical about military duty is that people generally don’t recognize it as something that contributes to society.
Even if we aren’t able to provide practical benefits to all servicemen on active duty, there should be at least a symbolic system to honor them. One active plan is give them licenses or certificate that recognize engineering skills or other abilities they acquired in the course of military training. In addition, we can consider reviving the system of giving additional points to ex-servicemen when they apply for public service jobs.
Of course, the system of giving additional points to ex-servicemen who apply for state exams should be made in a careful manner so women and handicapped people who are excluded from active military service don’t get discriminatory treatment.
It is also necessary to be considerate to men who are not able to serve in the army. “The society serving system” which is being studied should be developed with care so that it won’t be misused as another loophole to dodge the draft for the privileged few in our society. If we can ensure that the new system won’t be used as a loophole, we might be able to treat the people who served society as well as those who served in the army. If the society understands the difficulties of the solders and pays respect to our active servicemen, we can have a strong military without draft dodging scandals.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Byeong-jo
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