If you have any male Korean friends, you may already know that military service in South Korea is mandatory for them. Perhaps some of your favorite male idols have completed their mandatory military service periods.
Below is a free PDF guide for “Military Service in Korea” that you can download and take with you:
- 1 Korean Mandatory Military Service
- 2 How long is military service in South Korea?
- 3 Controversies Surrounding Military Service
- 4 Wrap Up
Korean Mandatory Military Service
Military service in South Korea is the compulsory participation of able-bodied citizens in active duty enlistment. Other activities involving this service are social work, research, full-time reserve enlistment and conscription, and industrial technical personnel, to name a few.
All Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to perform military service. While mandatory service is not applicable for women, South Korea does allow them to enlist.
Age of Enlistment
Once a Korean male turns 18 (Korean age), his compulsory service in the military comes into effect. However, they do not have to start their service immediately. It’s possible to delay the starting date until the age of 28.
Typically, Korean men will first graduate high school and complete one or two years of university studies, and then start their service in the military. In rare cases, they will wait until they graduate from a university before they start their military service.
Korean Military Service Exemption Rules
It’s expected that all men of good physical health will serve on active duty. However, it is possible to complete military service outside of active duty, such as with police duties.
Those who are not in good health are allowed to complete their military service through non-active duty. This could be through social work or other services for the government.
Lastly, those with debilitating diseases, such as diabetes or other conditions, can be exempted from military service altogether.
Professions that are exempt from Military Service
Exemptions can also be granted to those with exceptional skills. For example, some violinists, pianists, and ballet performers can get exemptions from duty. Also, athletes who have won medals in the Olympics, or specifically a gold medal in the Asian Games, are exempted from active duty. Instead, they can serve as art and sports personnel upon the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s recommendation.
These individuals will instead complete the four weeks of basic military training; then they can continue their careers so long as they do so for 42 months. Once this period has finished, they’ll attend a few days of military training every year for the next six years, but that’s the extent of their service.
Son Heung Min, who plays for Tottenham Spurs, received an exemption from active duty in 2018 after South Korea won gold in the Asian Games.
What will happen if you object to military service?
Objection to military service for any reason is not allowed and will lead to jail time. Dual citizens must also choose one citizenship by their 18th birthday and will not have to complete their military service if they revoke their Korean citizenship.
However, from that moment, they will be regarded fully as foreigners by the Korean government. So many Koreans living abroad choose to keep their citizenship and return to Korea at some point in their 20s to complete their military service.
How long is military service in South Korea?
The length of one’s military service depends on a number of factors. The branch of the military they’re in, active vs. non-active duty, all play a role. While the service time period for the South Korean Army and Marines is 21 months, the Navy is 23 months, and the Air Force is 24.
As for non-active duty, it’s 24 months for those in social work or international cooperation, 34 months for industrial technical personnel, and 36 months for those completing their service as doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, or expert researchers.
The length of military service in South Korea is long, in fact, it’s among the top 4 in the world. It only falls behind North Korea (where it’s compulsory for both women and men, with the lengthiest service time in the world), Israel (where it’s compulsory for women for 24 months and men for 32 months), and Singapore (compulsory for men for 24 months).
While there have been discussions regarding shortening the military service period because of relations with North Korea, there are no immediate plans for this.
Controversies Surrounding Military Service
Over the years, especially since the early 2000s, there have been a few controversies surrounding Korean military service. Usually, these controversies and scandals have been directed toward Korean celebrities.
Celebrities Exempted from Military Service
While they are not exempted from active duty altogether, there used to be a specific, easier military branch in which they could perform military service. However, as issues continued with celebrities even in this branch, as well as outrage from the general population who did not agree with celebrities getting preferential treatment, this branch has since been dissolved.
BTS Military Exemption
Another one is the popular question surrounding BTS, the phenomenal K-Pop group that took the world by storm. It is whether or not they will have to do compulsory military service. The answer is in what is popularly known as the “BTS Law,” a revision of Korea’s Military Service Act.
According to this, those who have received recognition from the government for helping enhance the country’s cultural influence worldwide can opt to defer their military services. BTS may be able to request a postponement of their enlistment because all group members meet that condition.
However, it was announced that all seven members of the group would be fulfilling their military service in South Korea. On December 2022, their eldest member, Kim Seok Jin began his military duty, followed by Jung Ho-seok (J-Hope) on April 2023.
There are also controversies about exemptions for athletes from performing active duty. Some are outraged that athletes will get an exemption but actors and singers won’t, while others are pushing towards abandoning the idea of exemption altogether. Meaning that all celebrities and athletes would complete their active military services just like all other Korean men.
The debate on mandatory military service will also likely continue for the foreseeable future. There are also factors driving the push for voluntary military service. Perhaps until there is some kind of change in how it’s implemented or until relations between the two Koreas change.
If you liked this article, here are some other resources you may enjoy:
- Guide to Learn Korean Online
- All About Korean Culture
- History of the Korean Language
- Structured Online Korean Course
What do you think about military service in Korea? Should celebrities and athletes receive preferential treatment compared to the general public? What laws surrounding the military does your country have? Let us know in the comments below!