South Korea Military Mulls Future

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

South Korea Military Mulls Future

International attention may be focused north of the border. But the case of a gay soldier could spark a rethink of South Korea’s military conscription.

Kim Kyung-hwan grew up in South Korea’s north Gyeonggi Province, just across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from North Korea and located at the tensest point of the two countries’ military stand-off.

“When I was a small child, tanks used to pass by my house every morning,” Kim says. “I never understood why people are trained to kill each other. The military trains you to kill people, but I always felt like I didn’t want to kill anyone or anything.”

As South Korea has remained technically at war with its neighbor, all able-bodied men are required by law to complete a 21-month term in the military. In 2006, when it came time for Kim to begin preparing for his time in the military, he fled, first to Australia then to Canada, where in 2009 he was granted refugee status in what some are calling a landmark case.

He argued that as a homosexual, his human rights would be violated in the military.

“I thought that if I refused to join the military I would be put in jail and face a risk to my security because I’m gay,” he says. “I objected to the military and feared for life in the military, both on moral grounds and because I am gay.”

Each year, about 300,000 men are conscripted into the South Korean military and riot police forces. About 1,000 refuse to serve and face 18 months imprisonment.

The prospect that South Korean soldiers may be asked to use lethal force, according to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), may provide a legal basis for objection to combat duty. The U.N. Human Rights Committee general comment 22 has stated that while “the Covenant does not explicitly refer to a right to conscientious objection… such a right can be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief.”

According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada’s ruling on Kim’s case, “Thirty to 40 percent of Korean conscripts are victims of physical punishment. Moreover, around 60 percent of all causes of deaths in the South Korean Army are suicides.”

South Korea's military has come under fire in recent years for the harsh treatment its soldiers sometimes receive. There have, for example, been cases of violent attacks by distraught soldiers in which mistreatment by higher-ranking soldiers is believed to have been a key motivating factor.

In 2005, a South Korean private tossed a grenade at a military post on the DMZ at the North Korean border and used a firearm to kill eight soldiers.

In July of this year, meanwhile, a South Korean marine corporal went on a shooting rampage that claimed the lives of four marines and wounded another. He also detonated a grenade in what appeared to be a suicide attempt. The incident took place on Gwanghwa Island, which borders North Korea. Frontline positions such as on the DMZ and on South Korea’s Yellow Sea islands are believed to be the most stressful for soldiers due to their proximity with North Korea and the tense relations between the Koreas over recent years.

The jumpiness that these tensions have created was on display earlier this year when South Korean soldiers opened fire on a commercial jet flying from Dalian, China to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport in June. They reportedly mistook the jet for a North Korean aircraft. They missed, and no damage was caused to the aircraft, but the incident was taken as evidence of a general jumpiness in the South Korean military.

The announcement of Kim Kyung-hwan’s case has made a splash in South Korea, with many wondering if it could set a precedent for prospective soldiers who wish to avoid their compulsory service.

While Kim was granted refugee status in Canada in 2009, he decided to release the information of his case publicly only in the past week, making his case public to encourage discussion of reforming South Korea’s mandatory military service. The development of some forms of civilian service has been suggested as an alternative for objectors.

Kim and others argue that young men who object to combat service should be given civilian jobs to fulfill their commitments. It’s possible for young men with strong academic credentials to spend three years working (at a low salary) for government-approved private firms in lieu of military service. But those opportunities are limited, and hundreds of men each year have to choose between jail and the barracks.

Kim says the issue has been stalled ever since the Lee Myung-bak regime came to power in 2007. “The situation has gone backwards since then,” he says. “There was no public discussion about it. They took all the alternatives off the table.”

While Kim has settled permanently in Canada, he hopes circumstances will change for homosexual soldiers in South Korea. On December 16, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea released a report on conditions faced by gay soldiers. The report includes soldiers’ testimonies and could encourage the dialogue Kim is hoping for. With general and presidential elections next year likely to bring to power a more left-leaning government, the issue of conscientious objectors could see some forward movement.

 “If I go back to Korea I will have to choose between taking up arms and going to jail. I will choose jail,” Kim wrote in his essay to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada when making his case for refugee status. “Furthermore, I fear for my life as a homosexual, not just in jail or in the army, but also where in society in general one must be far too discreet about who we are. This is a burden that’s simply too hard to bear.”

Steven Borowiec is a freelance journalist who has reported for GlobalPost, the Toronto Star and the Guardian, among other publications.