‘Pyongyang not the enemy’: S Koreans fed up with military service

SEOUL (AFP) – Namgung Jin is anxious as he awaits the start of his military service in South Korea – almost two years in uniform guarding against the nuclear-armed neighbour to the north, with the two countries technically still at war.

But by the time the 19-year-old college student enlists on March 5, just five days after the upcoming United States (US)-North Korea summit, some analysts say the Korean War may have been officially declared over.

US President Donald Trump is due to meet the North’s Kim Jong-un in Hanoi for a high-profile summit to make progress on denuclearisation of the peninsula, and a possible peace treaty.

If that happens, the future of the South’s controversial conscription system – which forces recruits to serve for months in often remote locations along the militarised border – will likely be up for debate.

For many young South Koreans like Namgung, it will be long overdue.

“I would definitely not want to serve if I were given an option,” he said, describing military service as a “waste of his youth” that delays him securing a job in South Korea’s hyper-competitive society.

Namgung, who was born in 1999 – almost 50 years after the Korean War ended with an armistice – said he rarely associated his service with the threat from the North.

“I’ve never considered North Korea as an enemy,” said Namgung, who studies computer science in Seoul. “I have no harsh feelings against the North. I just think life must be hard for those who live there.”

The bulk of South Korea’s 600,000-strong military are conscripts, who are required to serve for some 20 months.

Almost all able-bodied South Korean men are obliged to fulfill sentry duties, often in remote locations along the heavily militarised border.

Like Namgung, Han Sang-kyu – an 18-year-old who is scheduled to start his military service next year – said he was not hostile to Pyongyang.

“I’ve always considered North and South Koreans one people – I hope the two countries can unify one day,” he said.

Director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea in Seoul Lim Tae-hoon said the Korean War and its legacy are still very much present in the South’s repressive military culture.

“The Korean War started on a Sunday, and a lot of (South) Korean soldiers were off base when the North’s tanks crossed the 38th Parallel – the result was traumatic,” Lim told AFP.

“This is inseparable from why today’s soldiers in the South are confined to their bases all the time.”

Until this year conscripts were banned from using mobile phones for security reasons.

A rule that no more than 25 per cent of troops can take holiday at the same time means recruits spend long periods cooped up together, which has contributed to bullying.

Some 60,000 South Korean recruits are thought to have died since 1953 from a range of causes including suicide, firearm accidents and medical malpractice.

None of them died on the battlefield.

Song Jun-seo, a 18-year-old student who will enlist this year or next, said he wants “some kind of compensation” should the conscription system be abolished after he finishes his service.

“I would be very angry. I don’t want to be the last one to suffer in the system,” he said.

But Kim Dong-yup, an analyst at Kyungnam University, said it was too early to talk about abolishing conscription – and that it will probably take a long time for the country to turn to a volunteer military system, even if the rapprochement with the North progresses.

“North Korea is not the only security threat to the Korean peninsula,” Kim told AFP, citing other neighbouring countries and environmental disasters as potential problems.

Some men have taken extreme measures to avoid conscription, including 12 music students who stuffed themselves with protein powder before their medical exam, hoping to be declared too heavy for service.

Others have undergone unnecessary surgery and given themselves broken bones.

Song said he was disappointed by the result of his medical exam earlier this month – he was put in the top category, meaning he will have to serve in the armed forces without question.

“I have a chronic skin condition, so I’d been hoping to be placed in less physically taxing jobs, such as in local government,” Song told AFP.

He said he is scared to join the army because of what has happened to some soldiers while serving.

Song was horrified when he read about a soldier badly injured in 2016 after stepping on a landmine, another relic of the Korean war.

“At least if I were able do the service in local government, I wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of losing my leg,” he said.