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Why do Korean men have to complete military service—and should Filipinos do the same?

By Hannah Mallorca Published Jan 24, 2022 8:41 pm

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio received polarizing reactions after she vowed to push for mandatory military service if she gets elected as vice president in the 2022 national elections. The proposal drew support from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and ire from some government officials.

“Nakikita po natin ito sa ibang bansa, sa South Korea at sa Israel. Hindi po ROTC lang na isang subject o isang weekend o isang buwan sa isang taon,” said Duterte-Carpio, who is an AFP reservist.

In South Korea, all able-bodied men aged between 18 and 28 must enlist in the military for a minimum period of 18 to 21 months as part of their efforts to protect themselves against North Korea.

Any K-pop and K-drama fan knows—and fears—their oppa’s time to put their career on hold to enlist. 

How did South Korea’s military service start?

To recall, South and North Korea are technically still at war since the end of the Korean War in 1953. At that time, Korea was already divided into two states with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) under the totalitarian leadership of Kim Il-sung and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) under the authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee. 

Both governments claimed to be the “sole-legitimate” government of Korea, with neither accepting the border as permanent—which ultimately started the three-year war. Eventually, the fighting ended when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953 which created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to separate both countries. 

However, no formal peace treaty was ever signed. The two Koreas are still engaged in a frozen conflict. Despite both countries agreeing “in principle” to end the war in December 2021, peace talks between both countries have yet to start. 

This is where South Korea’s Military Service Act comes in. Under Article 39 of the South Korean Constitution, “all citizens shall have the duty of national defense under the conditions as prescribed by law.”

In other words, an able-bodied South Korean man aged between 18 and 28 must serve in the military for 18 to 21 months. Upon turning 18, all eligible citizens must immediately enlistefor “first citizen service.” 

Korean men, however, can put off their mandatory enlistment until the age of 28. If you object to the law, you’ll immediately be sentenced to jail. This can be seen in the case of Moon Myungjin, who was jailed for 15 months when he refused to serve in 2010.

A unique situation, however, can be seen in Korean-American actor and 2PM member Ok Taecyeon who gave up his permanent residence in the US to enlist as an active-duty soldier in September 2017.

What happens in South Korea’s military service?

Before enlisting, South Korean men are required to go through a physical exam which determines their condition for military training. Those who are found to be healthy enough can be drafted for active duty, supplemental, or second citizen service—depending on their age, qualifications, and background.

These services usually include the army, marine corps, navy, or air force for a minimum period of 18 to 21 months. SHINee’s Minho is one of the most popular celebrities who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2019. 

On the other hand, Korean men who don’t qualify in “more active” units have the choice to serve as a member of the military band, military chef, and social service worker. In 2019, EXO’s D.O. enlisted as a military chef where he revealed in a post-military V Live that he wakes up “very early” to feed the soldiers and other members of the unit. 

Celebrities who enlisted in the military band include SHINee’s Key and TVXQ’s Yunho. Meanwhile, EXO’s Baekhyun enlisted as a social service worker in May 2021 due to severe hypothyroidism.

Meanwhile, a Korean man who’s found to be “incapable” of enlisting due to health, mental, and physical “incompetence” is exempted from his mandatory service. This can be seen in the case of Uncontrollably Fond actor Kim Woobin who was exempted in 2017 due to nasopharyngeal cancer.

Another unique case can be seen in Hospital Playlist star Jo Jungseok, who was exempted due to “family circumstances.” Following the initial backlash, his agency revealed that the Korean government did a financial audit on the actor, which showed that he became his mother’s sole provider at an early age. 

In January 2022, SM Entertainment announced that SHINee’s Taemin will be completing the remainder of his military service as a social service worker due to depression and anxiety.

For Korean celebrities, it seems like deferring military service is possible with the passing of the “BTS Law” in December 2020. This permits celebrities to delay their mandatory enlistment until they turn 30 years old, according to the international age system.

These celebrities should bring significant achievements to the country as recognized by South Korea’s Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. In a report from Soompi, 253 out of the 268 National Assembly members voted for the bill, two voted against it, and 13 abstained. However, the bill remains at a “standstill,” as of this writing.

In an interview with CBS, BTS’ Jin said it’s “natural” as a Korean to enlist in the military. “And, someday, when duty calls we'll be ready to respond and do our best,” he added.

Should Filipinos do the same?

De La Salle University political science professor Dindo Manhit told PhilSTAR L!fe that he’s not in favor of Duterte-Carpio's proposal since “we’re not a country at war like Israel or South Korea.” 

“The question should be why do we need it and where is the discussion coming from? Will this allow us to best defend our nation and territories against the aggression of China, which is the greatest national security threat to the Philippines,” Manhit, who is founder of thinktank Stratbase Group, added. 

On the other hand, the AFP “welcomes” Duterte-Carpio’s proposal since it will help “instill patriotism” and help in nation-building efforts. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said while he supports the mandatory military service, there are “huge hurdles” in implementing the proposal since the country is “not on war footing.”

To protect the Philippines’ territory and maritime sovereignty, Manhit argues that mandatory military service is not the answer since the country should be strategic on strengthening the country’s defense capabilities such as the Navy and Air Force. 

“We should conduct joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries and fully implement the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US that has been on hold since July 2016 under the Duterte administration,” he said. 

Institute for Political and Electoral Reform executive director Mon Casiple agrees with Manhit, maintaining that there’s “no basis for military service since there’s no war or threat of one.”

Duterte-Carpio is running for vice president in tandem with former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., dubbed the UniTeam.