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FALQs: The Conscription System of South Korea

This is a joint guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and other jurisdictions in East and Southeast Asia, and Seongryeol Park, foreign law intern working with Sayuri Umeda in the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

 

USAG- Humphreys, KATUSA ETS Ceremony – U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea – 18 Jul. 2017. Photo by Flickr user USAG- Humphreys. July 18, 2017.  Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Background:

South Korea requires every man to perform mandatory military service.  Occasionally, there are stories of a celebrity or a son of a powerful person circumventing the system. In the past, conscientious objectors to conscription argued against it in court and won. More recently, there have been heated discussions as to whether the otherwise compulsory military service can be exempted for the members of Korean national pop star group, BTS. This post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.

1. Who is conscripted?  

All South Korean men must serve the military.  That duty is imposed by Constitution (Constitution Constitution No. 1, Jul. 17, 1948, art. 30, as amended, No. 10, Oct. 29, 1987, art. 39) and elaborated in the Military Service Act (“MSA,” Act No. 41, Aug. 6, 1949, as amended).  Upon turning 19 years old, they have to take a draft physical examination (MSA, art. 3) which determines their physical grades from grade 1 to 6, according to their physical and psychological condition.  Those who are healthy enough to perform active or supplementary service are classified at grades 1, 2, 3, or 4. (MSA, art. 12.) Anyone who falls in grades 1 through 4 is to be enlisted for active duty service, supplementary service, or the wartime labor service, based on their qualifications, such as educational background and age. (MSA, art. 14.)

2. Do you have a choice as to when you would perform military service or which force you would join?

Enlisted men have plenty of choices when and how to perform their military service. At first, an enlisted man can choose a sector of service among military, secondment (auxiliary police officer or obligatory fire fighter), or supplementary service (social work personnel, public health doctors, etc.). If he chooses to serve in the military, he can select among the army, the navy (including the marine corps), and the air force. Once he chooses the branch of the military, he can also choose what rank to apply to: enlisted soldier, non-commissioned officer, or commissioned officer. If he makes no choice, he must perform his service as an enlisted soldier in the army for 18 months. All the other options to perform his service must be made during the registration process, and are subject to qualification tests, which are different for each option.

A Korean man also can choose when to perform his military service by requesting postponement of the day for fulfillment of duty. (MSA art. 60.) For any person who is unable to fulfill his duty on the date due to disease, mental or physical disorder, disaster, employment, education, or family issues, among other things, as prescribed by the Enforcement Decree of MSA (Decree No. 281, Feb. 1, 1950, as amended), the date may be postponed upon request.  Usually, one request for postponing the call-up is for 1 or 2 years, and the maximum number of requests is five. However service must begin before one turns 30. (Id. art. 61.)

3. Can anyone be exempted?

If a person’s physical exam result is grade 5, he is enlisted for the wartime labor service. If a person’s physical grade is 6, he is exempted from military service. (MSA art. 14.)

Though not listed as exemptions, Olympic medalists, Asian game gold medalists, and grand-prix winners at famous music competitions can serve as “art and sports personnel” upon recommendation by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism. (MSA art. 33-7, ED MSA art. 68-11.) Those who qualify conduct voluntary activities in their area of specialization for a total of 544 hours over 2 years and 10 months. Doctors, lawyers, and expert researchers may also conduct “supplementary” services. (MSA arts. 2, 5, 34, 34-6, 36.)

Since June 30, 2020, those who refuse military service due to religious beliefs may perform “alternative” military service. (Act on Assignment to and Performance of Alternative Service, Act No. 16851, Dec. 31, 2019, as amended.) They engage in non-military public service.

4. Have there been any recent controversies concerning pop stars?

If a pop star qualifies for “art and sports personnel,” he may keep doing activities typically associated with being a pop star. Whether the members of BTS would qualify for it has been discussed as they approached the age limit of military service. One article estimates that BTS “generate billions for the South Korean economy and have helped turned the country into a cultural superpower.” In addition, BTS has six number-one albums on Billboard 200 Chart. Furthermore, BTS supported United Nations’ initiatives and visited the White House. Some argue that what BTS has achieved is much more than, and at least equivalent to, winning the first place in an international classical music competition that allows a person to qualify for “art and sports personnel.”

Most recently since 2021, five amendments to the MSA have been submitted to the Assembly to allow pop starts qualify for “art and sports personnel.” However, many people point out that it is difficult to objectively measure how much someone has contributed to the promotion of national prestige as a K-pop artist. The Ministry of National Defense has shown opposition to K-pop artists’ special military service. In the end, BTS chose sequential enlistment for each member. One of them started the military service in this month and for the moment this controversy seems to be over.

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