Farewell to conscription?
*The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
In Korea, there is a myth that military service makes you a man. Although many young men are drafted and “waste” their youth, it is a social belief that they become more mature. The military injects patriotism and a sense of duty to these soldiers. The conscripts brainwash themselves into believing that enduring the military’s suffocating rules, unreasonable disciplinary actions and outrageous irregularities are necessary to become a man.
Only after showing that they have completed their military duty could they truly become men. For Koreans, military service is not a choice but a sacred duty.
However, this may end soon. The Constitutional Court’s ruling in favor of alternative military services to “conscientious objectors” may be the first step towards a tornado. The court ruled that indiscriminate punishment of those conscientious objectors based on religious beliefs violates the freedom of conscience. If the ruling only considers Jehovah’s Witnesses — about 500 believers who choose to go to prison every year over joining the military — there is no problem. But the ruling can be a prelude to potential chaos that may shake up the conscription system maintained by the myth of “becoming a man.”
The court made the mistake of generalizing religious belief as a “conscience.” The Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court said that conscience is an inner process that guides one’s moral decisions. The freedom of conscience is guaranteed by the Constitution. The right to not be forced into acting against one’s morals is freedom of conscience. If this is what conscience is, there will be variations of it ranging from the political, ethical to philosophical, in addition to the religious. Those freedom of consciences must also be guaranteed.
This idea of the conscience provoked national sentiment. Some have asked whether those who completed their military service and their supporters are without a conscience.
The ruling offered an excuse for various kinds of consciences. Draft-dodgers will use this chance to avoid conscription. It won’t be uncommon for us to face some arguing for the freedom of conscience to not go to military. There soon will be many pro-unificationists who claim that they cannot take aim at the North Korean people. Antiwar protesters, sexual minorities and humanitarians also will disgrace the idea of an honorable military service by promoting their conscience.
The debate started with alternative services for conscientious objectors. Some said the service period should be double or triple that of normal conscripts. Some argue that harsh duties like punitive actions should not be allowed, while others wonder who will judge whether someone is a conscientious objector or not. It is not a debate that the alternative service should be served by a particular religious group that comprises only 0.2 percent of the 300,000 conscripts a year.
But the National Assembly, the Ministry of National Defense and the public seem to know already that there will be thousands and tens of thousands of zombies in the future who will pretend to be conscientious objectors. The population is rapidly shrinking, while the youngsters who can serve the military are more rapidly decreasing. If the alternative service is abused in this circumstance, the foundation of the conscription system can crumble.
After the Constitutional Court’s ruling, observers said the alternative service is a step toward the voluntary military system. One out of four youngsters suffer from the worst unemployment crisis. If the military can create new jobs and free 300,000 young men from conscription, it can ease the demographic cliff, the observers said. It is necessary to give young men in their 20s, who are intellectually and physically strong, an opportunity to make a choice. It is too cruel to make Son Heung-min, scheduled to be conscripted next year, to play in the soccer team of the Army.
The downside of the voluntary system is its expensive cost. As of now, 390,000 conscripted soldiers are receiving up to 400,000 won ($358) a month. When troops are cut to 200,000 and they are given a salary of 20 million won — the base salary of a rank-and-file public servant — the government needs an additional 3 to 4 trillion won. The Moon Jae-in administration spent 3 trillion won alone for job stability funds this year. Money is not an issue. But changing the duty of national defense is a matter of constitutional amendment. Without a national consensus, it is impossible.
In the face of North Korean nuclear threats, what does a large number of unskilled troops mean? Will the military be stronger when it is made up of professional soldiers? Are the 100 countries that are operating voluntary systems — such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany — seeing success?
If a young man’s conscience can now decide whether he will serve the military or not, the time may have come for the country to reconsider the entire recruitment system, including the voluntary system, while bidding farewell to the obsolete idea of becoming a true man only after serving in the military.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 6, Page 31