Military Service in Korea – Serving the Country

Last Updated on May 25, 2022 by 90 Day Korean
4 soldiers saluting in front of the Korean flag

If you have any male Korean friends, you may already know that military service in South Korea is mandatory for them.

Military Service In Korea

Below is a free PDF guide for “Military Service in Korea” that you can download and take with you:

Perhaps some of your favorite male idols have completed their mandatory military service periods. They often say they don’t like talking about it, but you’ll hear them talk about it a lot anyway as it’s a big part of all young Korean men’s lives.
But what exactly does the South Korean military service entail? Let’s take a look at it now!

South Korean Military Service

Military Service in South Korea is the compulsory participation of able-bodied citizens in activities such as active duty enlistment, 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 compulsory military service. While military service is not mandatory 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.

Apart from famous idols and actors, who usually wait since it might negatively affect their careers, most Korean men complete their compulsory military service in the early 20s.

Typically, the Korean men will first graduate high school and complete one or two years of university studies and then start their military service. In rare cases, they will wait until they graduate from a university before they start their military service.

Korean Military Service Exemption

Military in Forest

It’s expected that all men of good physical health will serve in active duty, however, it is possible to complete military service outside of active duty, such as with police duties.

Health Issues

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.

These individuals will instead complete the 4 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.

Does BTS have to go to the military?

A popular question surrounding BTS, the phenomenal K-Pop group that took the world by storm, 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 service. BTS may be able to request a postponement of their enlistment because all group members meet that condition.

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How long is military service in South Korea?

Military Ship

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 their 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.

Athletes Exemptions

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 service 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 changes.

If you liked this article, here are some other resources you may enjoy:

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!

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    47 replies to "Military Service in Korea – Serving the Country"

    • Avatar for Dree Dree

      Hello! Can I know the differences between 현역, 상근, 동반, 연고, 운전, 직게? I believe its a sortation for troops however I can’t seem to find some in depth explanation about them. Thanks for this blog btw. It helped lots 👍🏻👍🏻

    • Avatar for Amanda Amanda

      People seem to forget that NK exists🤦‍♀️.. Maybe shorten the time period a bit. But fair is fair, all men should do it or non.
      In Sweden is was mandatory for enlistment or jail time, but they removed it in the 90’s. But still all men aged 17 have to do a suitably examination, then it will determen who gets called for enlistment, in 2010 it started to include all women as well.
      2017 they put back the law of conscription and the law is gender neutral now so it goes for both men and women. (We do it btw for 6-15 months depending on what specialisation you’re admitted to) So that’s where we’re at.

    • Avatar for Lillian Lillian

      i don’t see any problem with actors,singers and celebrities exempted for their services they serve their countries in their line of work. Now i love south korea and I’m learning: culture, languge and everything about the country i watch south korean movies and series on Netflix 💗💗

      • Avatar for Pierre Pierre

        The problem is who gets to claim to be an actor, singer, or celebrity? How do you determine that?

      • Avatar for . .

        well you’re not Korean so your opinion about the subject doesn’t matter.

        • Avatar for N Kai N Kai

          It matters because Korean celebrities are a pride of korea as they are promoting korean culture and bringing in revenue, tourism and are making Korea’s culture and heritage well known. They deserve special treatment for being a good representative of Korea.

          • Avatar for Seeinglassfull-on-IG Seeinglassfull-on-IG

            I can definitely say it’s through Korean drama actors/actresses/writers/TV cast team that birthed my interest in EVERYTHING Korean. Thanking God for Korea and Koreans! Such talent and creativity and beauty! Blessings to them all! Mwah! 17-10-2021,U.K.

    • Avatar for Nubia Nubia

      My country doesn’t have an army or any type of military crew, so far that i know, even though I’m a BTS fan. I consider everybody should follow the law or rule that military service is, the nations is serving everybody, Idk if equal though.

      Any life should be more valuable than the other, I agree people with conditions like diabetes are exempt of it.

    • Avatar for Gabi Dela Cruz Gabi Dela Cruz

      Hi if your a FOREIGN FEMALE idol, can you still enlist for the military?

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, Gabi! Currently, Korea is not accepting foreigners to serve in the military. ^^

      • Avatar for Pamela Calzada Pamela Calzada

        But can we still go if we want to??

        • Avatar for Park Army (Korean) Park Army (Korean)

          Since IM Korean so I will tell u why u guys can’t.
          No, only South Korean citizens have to enlist. However, people holding a dual citizenship with Korea and any other country are required to choose which country to keep their citizenship for by 18, and if they choose Korea, they must also enlist (if they are male).
          And plus why does it say on google that u have to go there when ur 18??
          But no u don’t HAVE to ..

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