[Viewpoint] Show soldiers some appreciation

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[Viewpoint] Show soldiers some appreciation

The South Korean Olympic football team has stunned us all by beating the host of the Games, the football-crazy English, and winning a chance for a medal in the Olympics for the first time. Some foreign press are saying the country’s unique reward for players who win a medal - exemption from the two-year mandatory military service that all Korean men must serve before the age of 29 - was the motivation that pushed the Korean players to put in such an outstanding performance. Japan, which also advanced to the semifinals, hopes to avoid South Korea fearing the do-or-die spirit of its long-time rival.

The foreign media’s speculation may not be entirely off base. The players, like all male Korean citizens, are called upon to sacrifice a couple of years of their youth. It may be one of the reasons coach Hong Myung-bo excluded experienced striker Park Chu-young from the penalty shootout line-up. The Arsenal player created an uproar after he obtained a 10-year residence permit from Monaco that delayed his call to military service. After being recruited to the Olympic national squad, Park pledged to serve regardless of his Monaco residency.

To any Korean male, a chance to duck military service is tempting. Many who have served in the military recycle their serial numbers as passwords or mobile phone numbers. Military experience for Korean men is that life-changing an experience.

No matter how the government glorifies it as an “honorable” duty, military service is a burden to all men. During counterespionage operations in the 1980s, reservists on call outperformed in the campaign. Those actively serving feigned the work, because their time in the military was finite. But reservists, who need to go back to work, finish their mission sincerely and quickly.

The Ministry of Defense is considering reviving military service premiums for applicants for government jobs, saying female applicants now account for up to 84 percent of those who pass the teachers’ exam. Women’s rights organization vehemently oppose any premium for men who served in the military, saying test scores are what matters.

Presidential candidates are falling over each other offering to raise the pay for soldiers. Critics question where the money would come from and scorn the populist motive to win soldiers’ votes, and those of their parents. Some even fulminate against regarding the “sacred” military duty as a form of labor that is eligible for minimum wage.

But let’s be honest. How long can we go on demanding the young sacrifice two years for national defense? We all have one life and only 10 years in our 20s, a great period of life. Most of Korea’s presidents did not serve in the military and one governor even cut off his finger to escape conscription. This is how heavy the burden of military service weighs on Korean males.

Conservative governments have taken military service for granted. They treated soldiers as pawns on a chessboard. In fact, it was liberal President Roh Moo-hyun who paid the most attention to soldiers’ well-being. He raised sergeants’ monthly pay to 100,000 won ($89) from 20,000 won and shortened their service period. It may be because Roh served as a corporal in the military. The more direct reason was a surge in conscientious objectors.

The government claims if monthly salaries paid out to soldiers are raised to 500,000 won, as pledged by politicians, it would need an extra allocation of 2.3 trillion won a year. But it is unfair to ask soldiers to use their own money or rely on handouts from their parents to get by during the service period. Return ferry trips between the mainland and frontier islands on the western coast eat up their entire monthly salary of 100,000 won. They don’t even get the discounts offered to Incheon citizens as soldiers are not legal residents of the municipality.

The Incheon Assembly is demanding the Marine Corps get equal status as Incheon citizens in ferry ticket fares. Improving service life should hardly be regarded as a luxury. It is the least we can do for young men who are defending the nation. Few taxpayers would argue at such proposals, which are more plausible than most welfare promises by politicians.

The French, who were the first to introduce conscription, returned the debt to young soldiers with citizenship. The law offering to elevate the lowest class through battle in the Joseon Dynasty motivated soldiers to win battles against Japan. Peasants and servants rushed to fight to the death with hammers and rakes hoping their children would grow up with a higher social status. Today’s young aren’t persuaded by appeals to patriotism. They will happily serve if it is worth it.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho
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