Weight Gain Bust Stokes Debate Over South Korean Conscription
The Military Manpower Agency (MMA) of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has formally accused 12 men, all vocal music majors from a university in Seoul, of conspiring to evade obligatory active-duty military service by deliberately gaining weight. The MMA’s investigation found that the twelve had exchanged tips on gaining quick weight in a group chat on social media chatting app KakaoTalk, including eating high-calorie foods five times a day, drinking protein shakes and aloe vera juice to retain water weight, and feigning insanity on the day of the exam.
South Korea — technically still at war with neighboring North Korea — maintains a 24-month mandatory military service for all Korean men aged 18 to 35 under the provisions of the Military Service Act. Several types of service exist, ranging from standard active-duty service to different degrees of alternative service. Before being enlisted for active duty, men must take a physical exam. Per Chapter III, Article 12 of the Act, examinees are graded on a seven-point scale, where if they receive a grade of four or above, they are deemed unfit for active-duty service and are eligible for exemption or alternative service.
The twelve accused by the MMA of draft dodging are vocal music majors who allegedly sought to escape active-duty enlistment as it would put their aspiring music careers to a halt. The investigators reported that by dodging the military exam, they were aiming to be assigned to alternative service arrangements, such as social service, which would grant them more free time to pursue their singing careers alongside national service.
While two of the accused have already finished their alternative service program and four are waiting for assignment to state offices to serve in non-military roles, the MMA referred all twelve to prosecutors for further action, with authorities vowing to “make an example of the violators so that a fair and just military service culture can take root.” The Ministry of National Defense has warned that if the students are found guilty, they would have to undergo a second exam and possibly complete the mandatory two-year military service as active-duty personnel.
This case is the most recent development in the country’s ongoing debate over the Military Service Act and its exemption criteria.
South Korea has a notoriously high bar for granting exemptions. One dimension of controversy over military service exemptions extends to sports and the arts. While Seoul does grant exemptions to men who have “raised the national image on a global stage and enriched the culture and sports sectors” — including Olympic medal winners, Asian Games gold medalists, and international classical music competition winners — exemptions are not granted to internationally acclaimed, high-achieving pop-culture stars, actors and filmmakers.
While many have questioned the fairness of an exemption system that selectively excludes particular segments of population based on a government definition of “culture and sports sectors,” non-exemption (and outright prosecution) of conscientious objectors from military service became the subject of social and legal drama in the country earlier this year.
South Korea imprisons more conscientious objectors than the entire world combined, with the country’s Constitutional Court ruling such imprisonments legal in 2004 and 2011 on the premise that the “constitutional right to freedom of conscience did not overrule the need for national defense.” However, an appeal this year to the Constitutional Court resulted in a landmark ruling that found that alternative service roles must be provided to those who cannot pursue active duties due to religious reasons. The Court has has given the legislature until the end of 2019 to modify the exemption criteria in this regard.
Critics of mandatory military conscription point out the numerous controversies in the system. These include corruption, hazing and abuse of recruits and an unfair, outdated exemption criteria. Apart from being accused of derailing the careers of the youth, some also perceive conscription as an institution that promotes gender inequality.
However, supporters of conscription — such as conservatives in South Korea — see the service as a rite of passage which “makes boys into men” and argue that it prepare young individuals to understand South Korea’s corporate structure. Others recognize mandatory military service not only as a means of ensuring national security but also as a social equalizer amongst the Korean citizenry.
As of now, the present government of South Korea under President Moon Jae-in plans to decrease the mandatory military service period from 24 to 18 months. In light of current events, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon has ordered a review of the exemption criteria for military service.