On June 20th 2013, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, along with female lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party, blocked the Defense Ministry’s latest proposal to give extra credits to male job seekers who completed their compulsory military service. The reason given by the Ministry of Gender Equality was that the incentives that were proposed by the Defense Ministry, if passed, would have infringed on the rights of women and the disabled.
Article 39, Section 1 of the Republic of Korea Constitution states: “All citizens have the duty of national defense under the conditions as prescribed by law.”
In its current interpretation, “all citizens... prescribed by law” means that all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 to 35 must serve in the military. Although women can certainly choose to enlist, women are not subjected to the draft. Whereas men who are conscripted (unlike those who choose to become non-commissioned officers after they complete their minimum military service or those who go through the ROTC route or those who graduate from any of the military academies) start their military careers as privates, women who choose to enlist start their military careers as either staff sergeants or second lieutenants.
I myself was conscripted and served in the Republic of Korea Army from June 2011 to March 2013. For the sake of clarification, I was proud to have served in the Army. Although I still feel like a foreigner in my own country, it doesn’t change the fact that this is, indeed, my country. And as an ardent anti-communist, I was more than willing to do my part to defend my country.
That being said, neither my military service nor the military service that was carried out by any other conscript was voluntary. For twenty-one months (longer for those who served in the past), my life was not mine to live. Regardless of what any conscript may have thought about the matter, it just didn’t matter. From the moment we take our oaths to defend our homeland from enemies, both foreign and domestic, until the day that we are discharged, our lives belong to the government. No one in the Military Manpower Administration asked our opinions on the morality of conscription. No one asked us if we even wanted to be there. We were just there; property of the Republic of Korea government.
During those twenty-one months, the government can do with our lives the way it sees fit. And it does. Although I received differentiated monthly paychecks after each promotion, on average, I earned about US$100 per month. For a country whose economy is as developed as Korea’s, you’d think that the government could afford to pay its soldiers a livable wage. However, the thing about a forced conscription is that the government is not compelled to pay very much. When the choice that Korean men face is between twenty-one months of military service for lousy pay or anywhere between eighteen months to three years in prison for refusing to serve as well as being ineligible for employment almost anywhere for being an ex-con or for being a draft dodger, the rational choice becomes obvious quite quickly.
As such, when I read that the Ministry of Gender Equality blocked the proposal to give extra credits to male job seekers who completed their compulsory military service, I became a little irate.
That being said, I had to recognize that I was thinking emotionally and in my experience, such kind of thinking seldom leads to objectivity.
The Ministry of Gender Equality may have been short-sighted in its rationale that those extra credits would have “infringed on the rights of women and the disabled.” However, that does not change the fact that in an economy that is as patriarchal as Korea’s, women do face far more discrimination based on their gender than any civilized society ought to permit.
Despite the fact that President Park Geun-hye is Korea’s first elected female president, there appears to be little to suggest that women are about to break the proverbial glass ceiling. In August 2011, FinanceAsia published a list of the top twenty women in finance in Asia. There wasn’t a single Korean woman on that list. According to the Korea Times, there are only a handful of female chief executive officers (CEOs) among top Korean companies and half of them are daughters of the parent groups’ chairmen.
Of the three hundred seats in the National Assembly, only forty-seven of those seats are held by women. That is a meager 15.7 percent of the seats, a figure that puts Korea in 105th place in a global ranking of the proportion of women in parliament. This puts Korea with the ranks of Albania, Burkina Faso, and North Korea. Korea has actually gotten worse in this ranking because in 2011, Korea was at 80th place.
Due to the pressure of long working hours and the lack of maternity support, women between the ages of 25 and 29 made up about at 69.8 percent of the workforce in 2010 while the figure dropped to 54.6 percent for women between the ages of 30 and 34. Furthermore, it is estimated that women earn only about 70 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
While it is true that the government has attempted to help women in the workplace by introducing family-friendly policies such as expanding tax benefits, providing longer maternity leave, and establishing more daycare centers for children of working mothers, it hasn’t changed the fact that women compose a smaller and economically weaker portion of the workforce. This is in spite of the fact that Korea is the fastest aging country in the world combined with the fact that its working-age population is sharply declining.
The most likely reasons behind Korean women’s low participation in the workforce, besides being compelled to stay home to raise children, are Korea’s male-dominated corporate culture, which is reluctant to make significant changes to their working environment; and Korea’s Confucian traditions that have promoted deeply ingrained chauvinism.
When the Defense Ministry proposed to give extra credits to male job seekers who completed their compulsory military service, considering the fact that only men must serve in the military, by definition, those extra credits come at the expense of women. Furthermore, considering the unfair social and cultural upper hand that Korean men already have over women, a barrier which at this time seems almost impossible to cross, it would appear that those extra credits would only help to make an unjust social system remain unjust that much longer.
But what of the argument that it is unfair to only subject men to compulsory military service? Considering the fact that countries like Israel and Norway have extended compulsory military service to women, would it not make sense for Korea to do the same? Would that not make things equal between men and women?
I served alongside women while I was in the Republic of Korea Army. I took orders from female staff sergeants, sergeants first class, second lieutenants, and first lieutenants. My company commander, a captain, was a woman. I even had the rare pleasure of meeting a female lieutenant colonel. As those women chose to enlist, unlike me who only served for twenty-one months, the shortest time that one of those women served was a little under three years. The lieutenant colonel, who is still in the Army, has served for almost thirty years.
Each and every one of them commanded my utmost respect and admiration. That these women exist ought to be a constant source of shame for draft dodgers.