SEOUL—To maintain a ready fighting force, South Korea has a mandatory military service that ranks among the world’s longest. But the country has a problem: Its pool of eligible enlistees is shrinking fast.
With the developed world’s lowest birthrate, the military will next year be a sixth smaller than it was just a few years ago, according to estimates from the South Korean military. In two decades, it is estimated that it will be about half its present size.
Now a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party who has presidential ambitions is advocating that the country abolish its all-male draft requiring 18 months of military service. In exchange, Park Yong-jin is proposing that all young citizens—men and women—should undergo several months of basic training.
The proposal to revamp service requirements faces long odds, even if Mr. Park were to win the presidency next year. Maintaining a robust military has long been a priority in South Korea, where the threat from North Korea is always looming.
Still, the proposal is stirring debate about the future of the military and the role of women in the armed forces and society in South Korea, where changing the conscription rules has at times been a political winner. President
attracted young male voters during his 2017 campaign by pledging to lower the mandatory service time.
The idea to revamp the military service requirements won nationwide attention after Mr. Park included it in a book he wrote called “Political Revolution.” On the same day the book was published in April, a petition calling for women to be drafted was uploaded onto South Korea’s presidential website. It eventually gathered nearly 300,000 signatures, surpassing a threshold that requires the government to respond within 30 days.
Mr. Moon, who can’t run for reelection after his five-year term ends next year, hasn’t taken a stance on giving men and women the same conscription obligations. His ruling party was defeated in two recent mayoral elections due in part to losing the backing of young voters.
“Having women participate will create a strong reserve force,” Mr. Park said in an interview. His proposal would increase the country’s reserve ranks by roughly sevenfold from current levels.
Other countries are also rethinking policies on military conscription that is male-dominated. Just a fraction of soldiers are deployed for combat roles, even in wartime. Modern warfare requires a far broader set of skills than physicality, the traditional justification to exclude women.
In the U.S., President Biden’s acting solicitor general in April filed a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to hold off on hearing a case that challenges the constitutionality of America’s male-only draft, as Congress weighs legislation that could require everyone to register for selective service. The legal rationale has been that the draft’s main function was to provide combat-ready forces. But in 2013, the U.S. removed combat bans for women.
“We think it’s all guts and glory and it’s not,” said
Kara Dixon Vuic,
a war studies professor at Texas Christian University, who is writing a book called “Drafting Women.”
“If we need the best capable people, we need to see who is most capable,” she said.
Sweden and Norway in recent years have adopted gender-neutral conscription. France has piloted a national civic service, which will eventually be compulsory, designed to give teenage girls and boys direct experience in military life.
“The military is the last bastion of masculinity in so many ways,” said
a Swedish academic who has studied gender relations in her country’s armed forces. Adding women to the conscription pool was deemed impossible for decades. But after it happened in 2017, Ms. Persson said, “it was a zero-debate issue.”
South Korea’s 18-month military service is among the world’s longest, following the two years served in Singapore and Thailand, plus the roughly three years required of Israeli men. North Korea is believed to have the longest conscription—a decade for men and seven years for women.
In South Korea, with few exceptions, able-bodied men must report for duty before they turn 28 years old. The country has roughly 550,000 active troops and another 2.7 million in its reserves, numbers that have shrunk in recent years due to the country’s persistently low childbirth rates.
Demographics aren’t on South Korea’s side. The country’s population declined for the first time in 2020 as the country’s fertility rate plunged to a historic low of 0.84—the lowest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members. That is well below the rate of 2.1 required to sustain a population at its current level.
To deal with dwindling numbers, Seoul’s military plans to embrace weaponized drones, unmanned aircraft and other technologies. It wants to boost recruitment for commissioned female officers.
The country’s military hasn’t taken a stance on female conscription yet, saying the matter should be decided after a comprehensive review and be backed by public consensus.
One chief concern from South Korean women and advocacy groups is whether the military, even for several months of basic training, would be sufficiently safe as far as sexual violence is concerned. A female air force master sergeant committed suicide last month, the South Korean military said, after she was allegedly sexually harassed by a colleague. The incident, which became public this week, has renewed criticism of the military for not providing better safeguards against sexual harassment and abuse.
This week, a spokesman for the defense ministry said the armed forces feel immense responsibility for not sufficiently protecting victims.
On Thursday, a military court issued an arrest warrant for an air force master sergeant suspected of committing the harassment. South Korea’s defense ministry, which is holding the suspect in a military facility following the court order, declined to make the suspect available for comment. The suspect’s attorney couldn’t immediately be reached. The ministry hasn’t released the suspect’s full name.
An overhaul of the current military, including implementing better safeguards against sexual violence, should precede any debate about forcing women to serve, said Kim Eun-ju, executive director at the Center for Korean Women and Politics, an advocacy group.
About half of South Koreans support female conscription while the other half is in opposition, according to a recent poll conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute. But the idea receives a majority backing from those in their 20s and 30s.
One supporter of drafting females is Haley Cha, a 32-year-old graduate student in Seoul. Plenty of military roles exist outside the toughest combat positions, including administrative jobs or medical service roles, and a system drafting one gender, but not the other, leaves a bad imprint on society, Ms. Cha said.
“Viewing women as incapable of serving reinforces wrong notions that they are weak,” Ms. Cha said.
David Choi, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, said he would advocate drafting women only if a thorough policy study proved that maintaining a capable military was impossible due to a shortage of male recruits. But he worried about other unintended consequences, too.
“There’s the risk of worsening disagreements between men and women by suddenly proposing the idea of drafting women,” Mr. Choi said.
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