SEOUL—Hong Ki-soo, a 34-year-old Seoul resident, doesn’t have fond memories of his mandatory military service.
“It was really an awful time. I didn’t need it,” he said.
Still, he has no respect for those who dodge serving, given that the country has a hostile neighbor to the north.
“Once those [avoiding] are detected, they should be punished.”
In South Korea, all healthy young men are required to serve in the military for almost two years. During that period, they undergo tough military training, while their personal freedom is restricted, including not being able to meet friends and family except for a few holidays per year.
While many see the service as an unpleasant but necessary part of life, some young men seek creative ways to avoid spending two years of their lives in the military.
Most South Korean men have to do military service, unless they are officially confirmed to suffer from severe disabilities or disorders. National athletes who win at major international competitions, or those who get employed by the government in key manufacturing or research positions, can also be exempted from service.
In September, 12 college music students were accused of purposefully increasing their weight to be too overweight for military service.
“One of them added 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of body weight in months, and, therefore, qualified for civil service instead of military service,” an official with Military Manpower Administration (MMA) told The Epoch Times. The official was authorized to speak on the matter, but asked for anonymity, as is sometimes common in South Korea.
Those whose health doesn’t qualify them for the military service, but are capable of office work, are required to do public service at governmental offices and welfare centers. This is preferred by many, as it allows for a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. work schedule instead of a 24-hour army life.
The students ate protein supplements to increase their weight in a short period of time and drank aloe vera juice beverages on the day of the medical exam to appear heavier, according to the MMA officer.
The MMA found evidence that the music students had shared methods for increasing their body weight in order to avoid military duty after analyzing social-media messages on their cell phones, the official said.
Another common tactic to be disqualified from military service is pretending to be mentally ill. Some conscription candidates pretend to be suffering from schizophrenia, the official said.
“The deceivers go to the hospital and tell the doctor, ‘I can’t go outside of my home, I’m worried others may hurt me,’ while they continue to enjoy a normal life,” the official said. “That way, they obtain the diagnosis of schizophrenia as well as the treatment record.”
The MMA must accept the diagnosis, exempting the candidate from military duty.
Schizophrenia normally requires lifelong treatment, so those who end treatment after having been exempted from military service are subject to being investigated, the official said.
Some men also persuade doctors to do major surgeries on them. In 2015, a candidate was found to have had “reconstructive surgery” on his knee, even though he’d only sustained a mild injury while skiing. The MMA found that he had actually been skiing up to the eve of the surgery.
In 2013, some candidates temporarily made their eyes malfunction by applying a substance that abnormally enlarged their pupils.
By deceiving a doctor into believing that they were injured during a soccer game, they were diagnosed with a pupil movement disorder, which disqualified them from military service.
Those found guilty of unlawfully avoiding duty can receive a prison sentence and can be forced to complete military service.
The Harsh Life
In addition to the tough military training, the strict hierarchical structure in the isolated military environment often results in various abuses taking place among the soldiers.
Jeon Je-min, 36, who served from 2002 to 2004, told The Epoch Times that the most common form of abuse is being beaten. He added that scolding is another common type of abuse.
At times, the harshness of the environment leads some to take their own lives. In July 2017, a South Korean soldier committed suicide by leaping from the Armed Forces Capital Hospital. In his notes, he claimed that he was abused verbally and physically by his superiors in the army, according to the Center for Military Human Rights Korea.
The 22nd Infantry Division, which was the soldier’s unit, has become infamous for deadly tragedies. In January of the same year, another soldier of the division committed suicide; he had visible marks of physical abuse on his face.
In 2014, a soldier fired gunshots and threw a grenade toward his colleagues, killing five and wounding several others. According to the prosecution investigation, the soldier had been bullied by other soldiers, Sisain, a local newspaper, reported.
Suicide has been listed as the most common cause of death of South Korean soldiers for more than a decade, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
The ministry has announced a new plan that aims to improve the conditions of service in the military.
As a part of the plan, the ministry set up a committee in September to investigate fatal accidents in the military. Plans are also in place to start an organization focused on ensuring that no rights violations occur in the military.
“The country has the duty to return its sons doing military service in healthy condition,” President Moon Jae-in said in a recent statement.
In South Korea, those who dodge military service are scorned.
“Since [military service] is a legal duty, those who avoid it are wrong, are law-breakers,” Jeon said.
“Neither myself nor others want to go [into the army],” he added. Those who don’t want to do their duty should “immigrate to other countries rather than break the law.”
One of the most well-known cases of dodging military service is that of Steve Yoo, one of South Korea’s most famous pop singers in the early 2000s.
For years, he declared that he would accept military service. In 2001, he qualified for civil service due to a lower back injury. However, he obtained U.S. citizenship in January 2002 and abandoned his South Korean nationality, only three months before his term of service was to begin. Yoo’s decision outraged the South Korean public.
“[Yoo’s] betrayal was unthinkable,” Jeon said, referring to him by a curse word.
In February 2002, Yoo flew to South Korea for a press conference to apologize for his decision. However, the Korean government banned him from entering the country. Since then, the South Korean government has continued to ban him from returning, accusing him of damaging the country’s standing and its social order.
“It is horrible to be restrained when we are at the peak of our 20s,” Jeon said, referring to the mandatory conscription. But, he added, “as we don’t know when [a war] will break out, someone needs to sacrifice himself for peace, so that our parents and other loved ones can sleep comfortably. ”