File photo of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Photograph:( Reuters )
South Korea's youth have two options: Join the army, or go to prison. It is among the handful of countries that has a policy of forced military service. But recently, the laws have been relaxed
South Korea's youth have two options: Join the army, or go to prison. It is among the handful of countries that has a policy of forced military service. But recently, the laws have been relaxed.
People who refuse to serve now have the option of public service. But there's a catch. They are being deployed in prisons for this work. In South Korea, the choice was always clear: Serve in the military or be branded a criminal. South Korea has a policy of compulsory military service; failing to serve means going to prison.
20,000 people have been imprisoned over this rule, and some of them have been subjected to brutal treatment.
But not anymore
South Korea has announced a major change to its military draft policy with an alternative service that can be performed instead of military duty. People who refuse to serve will still be in prison but as workers, not inmates. They will cook for the prisoners, clean the prison walls, and serve as assistants to the prison doctor. But - they will remain free men, with no criminal records.
Right now, prison work is the only option but gradually more forms of public service are expected to be added like working in nursing homes or as firefighters. Military service is sacred in South Korea, and all able-bodied men are required to serve for at least 21 months. It is considered the best way to counter its rival, North Korea. But since 1949, at least 400,000 people have refused to serve.
A majority of them are Jehovah'sWwitnesses - A Christian group that does not believe in war and violence. While this is a historic moment in South Korea, the battle is only half-won. Three years of prison service in a country that prides itself as a liberal democracy is a lot.
But South Korean politicians say if the alternative is too easy, the youth will evade the draft in large numbers.
The fact is South Korea does need a large standing army, with the ever-present threat from North Korea.
Pyongyang claims to have more than a million soldiers in its ranks, and South Korea is struggling to keep up, especially with birth rates plummeting in the last few decades.
Draft dodgers in South Korea often become easy targets - like pop star Yoo Seung-Jun, who was accused of dodging military service in 2002 by becoming a US citizen.
South Korea is not alone in mandatory military service
In Israel - men must serve at least 3 years in the army, and women - two years. In Syria, military service is a must for all men and government workers who evade it end up losing their job, with reports of rigorous jail terms.
Even Switzerland has similar rules: The Swiss endorsed compulsory military service thrice in three separate referendums. But people do have the option of civilian service.