Phones will distract conscripts
It’s not just the persistent abuse and violation of basic human rights that is appalling. The fact that the military has turned a blind eye to the ongoing injustices and has tried to cover them up is also what angers the public. I bow my head deeply as a retired member of the military.
The military has been trying to improve barracks culture and injustices, but lives are still lost in tragic incidents. Young men from various walks of life are drafted - mostly against their will - and are compelled to adapt to harsh military life for about two years. Because of the enforcement, conflicts among conscripts often occur. Yet there is little room for relief.
Allowing soldiers to keep and use mobile phones has been suggested as an idea that might help. But despite some positive aspects cell phones may bring, they won’t solve fundamental problems.
The positive side to allowing conscripts to carry cell phones is that both parents and soldiers will be more at ease about the safety and well-being of those away from home. Phones mean that a son can share his troubles with his mother. Sons will feel less isolated because they have families to turn to whenever necessary. Soldiers will be more careful about what they say and do because there is always a second eye present at the barracks. But this is just a theory, because phones actually can do more harm than good.
Some people claim violence at schools has decreased because students are allowed to carry mobile phones in classrooms. But school bullying and accidents have not been eradicated, and the same will be true in a military environment. Phones could be used to torment or harass soldiers and mask or distort reality. Despite military guidelines, superiors or higher-ranking officers could deprive certain soldiers of access to their phones as punishment or torment. They could force them to lie to their parents or families. When a person is being harassed and loses self-confidence, he will not dare to challenge authority and speak candidly about his ordeal.
The military exists to prepare soldiers for combat and deter war. Brotherhood is essential because peer soldiers are the only people that conscripts can rely on during contingency. Fellowship is built when soldiers spend time training, sharing meals and resting together. With mobile phones, the soldiers’ free time will change significantly. Instead of kicking balls or practicing hoops, soldiers will sit alone playing with their phones. Estrangement is dangerous in a combat situation. Any threat to solidarity is a threat to defense.
Who most benefits from allowing mobile phones in the military? Some parents will feel more at ease, but not all of them will agree with the change. Mobile phone carriers and manufacturers will be happy about increased customers and service revenue. North Korea will be beaming. It will be able to dig out defense information and secrets by intercepting mobile calls and text messages. Even some citizens wonder what will happen if phones become commonplace in military units and outposts. Even companies with security concerns have started to prohibit use of phones in offices working on sensitive projects.
Improving barracks culture cannot be done by the military alone. Homes, schools and society must come together to ameliorate military life. The Defense Ministry has been right to launch a reform committee jointly with civilians. Use of mobile phones should be discussed and reviewed as part of a greater picture to reform the military and its culture.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs and retired brigadier general.
BY Chang Ki-yun