[Column] Let’s end this pointless debate on conscripting women

Posted on : 2021-05-05 10:44 KST Modified on : 2021-05-05 10:44 KST
It’s time to ask whether conscription should remain in the first place
Kim Jong-dae
Kim Jong-dae

By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean

Korean obstetricians say that women who’d just given birth to a boy would often say the same thing to the father. “I guess this baby will have to go to the army when he grows up.” It’s a natural feeling shared by Korean mothers.

Military service is a time of loss, sacrifice and interruption for the men who have to perform it, but it’s also a time of separation and sadness for their mothers. Conditions in the military have reportedly improved a lot over the years, but mothers still weep in front of the base on the day their sons start basic training. Even today, the worst nightmare for Korean men is going back to the army.

There are a number of things the state ought to promise young people who are doing their military service: the minimum wage throughout their service, state-funded medical treatment for any injuries, maximum protection of basic rights in the service and active assistance converting military service to job experience after being discharged.

Is that too much to ask? A decent conscription service should provide at least that much. That’s true of most countries with conscription, including Vietnam, Thailand, Israel, Egypt, Norway and Turkey.

What about the South Korean military? Fat chance! Soldiers shouldn’t get their hopes up.

From their first day of service, Korean conscripts are subjected to browbeating and mind-boggling bewilderment that’s passed off as one’s patriotic duty. Conscripts aren’t even paid half of what convicts receive for doing hard labor. And if they get sick or injured in the service, they’re not even guaranteed medical treatment after leaving, let alone given special honors.

The administration of Moon Jae-in has made a considerable effort to improve conditions for Korean conscripts by raising their pay, allowing them to keep their mobile phones, and giving them freedom to make trips off base and even spend the night elsewhere. That has apparently brought about considerable changes to barracks life.

But that only pares away some of the heavy-handed rules without changing the essential feature of Korea’s mandatory military service, namely, that conscripts are regarded as free labor.

Nowadays, there are petitions calling for conscription to be extended to women, and some politicians have even said that women should also be required to undergo military training.

Advocates of this idea say they’re trying to achieve gender equality in military service, but simply put, that’s hogwash. For that argument to hold water, Korea would need to have a decent system of conscription.

I suspect that the politicians advocating this position are angling for votes by agitating men in their 20s who feel they’re the victims of reverse discrimination. It’s worth noting that the debate about female conscription took off shortly after the by-elections this past April, which demonstrated the power of young male voters.

I’m concerned that men’s determination not to be the only victims of a bad system of conscription will end up victimizing women as well. If young men come to collectively feel that, in a fair society, women ought to go to the army, too, it will inevitably lead to gender conflict.

If the debate expands to such arguments as reviving preferential hiring for those who’ve completed their military service and instituting a quota system for women, it may well plunge the young generation into a cold war between the sexes.

For a taste of the potentially massive ramifications, look no further than the recent by-elections. Politicians with a good nose for opportunities are hurrying to carve up the youth vote.

This is the sad self-portrait of a generation that has gone through isolation and interruption without getting any respect from the state.

The Korean military subscribes to an ideology of sexual hierarchies, rejecting sexual minorities because of the confusion they’d supposedly cause. Why should we take such an institution at its word if it suddenly announces that it wants to start conscripting women, too?

Given its ideological defense of discrimination, the Korean military has no reason to conscript large numbers of women. And even if it did, there’s no way that Korea’s barracks could house them. Those who support female conscription don’t talk about the military’s culture of discrimination.

This debate ignores the fact that Korea’s conscription system is teetering on the brink because of the shrinking population. It’s time to halt this self-destructive debate about a conscription system that will become impossible to maintain within a decade, especially since that debate will lead to a pointless gender conflict.

It’s pointless to argue about female conscription when we ought to be asking whether conscription should continue in the first place.

It’s shocking to see how glibly these people talk about national security. For young Korean men, that just adds insult to injury.

By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean

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