Military Service and Support for Unification

South Korean marines train at Baengnyeong Island near the North Korean border. Photo credit Seo Myeong-gon / Yonhap / AP.

South Korea is a little bit smaller than Kentucky, yet it has the sixth-largest standing military in the world. There is only one country that is remotely similar in size with a comparable military: North Korea.

Because the war between North and South Korea is technically still ongoing, military service in both Koreas is compulsory, though only for men. In the South, all men must serve for two years. In the North, it’s ten years. We know instinctively that the North Korean military is drastically different from the U.S.’s, just as almost everything about North Korean society is drastically different from ours. The compulsory service in the South, though, also makes the South Korean military quite different from what we’re used to here, and it affects not only the military itself but also society at large in interesting ways.

Imagine: pretty much every guy you know over the age of 18 has been in the military. Not just your father, your brothers, your uncles, but also your college professors, Barack Obama, the IT guy in the next office, the barista at your local coffee shop, Jim Henson, your yoga teacher, your mailman, the guy driving the Mercedes next to you in traffic. All would have served two years in the military in South Korea.

Proponents of compulsory service say it is a necessary contribution to national security with such a volatile neighbor to the North, which is about 23 miles from downtown Seoul at the closest point on the border. Pyongyang itself is only 120 miles away, about the same distance as San Diego is from Los Angeles.

Military service is often described as an intense bond among men in Korea, because it is something everyone shares, even if few people enjoy it. It’s supposed to aid in national unity, increase economic integration, strengthen discipline and public service, and make the national workforce more internationally competitive, and a good argument could be made that it does all of these things in South Korea. There are certainly benefits to it.

Compulsory service may play a significant role, though, in eroding support for unification. This may seem obvious, as it would be to claim that war with North Korea erodes support for unification, but I think it’s under-discussed. If half of Korea’s citizenry has thought actively about the threat that North Korea poses every day for two years at the beginning of their adult life, it only makes sense that they would fear their neighbor to the north, would heighten the division between the countries in their imagination, and would oppose any application of national resources toward unification until something about the other side changes.

It may not be feasible for South Korea to entirely recast the structure of military service. The North, as has been proven in the past, is volatile. But it might be a good idea to shape the military to better reflect the national goal of unification. If the South waits for a change from North Korea, any change that comes may be too sudden and too drastic to deal successfully with. Harnessing the presence of the military in South Korean lives to increase support for unification could make a very significant difference in overall support and overall preparation, and if unification is an eventual goal, addressing the way the military approaches it should be an essential part of the national strategy.


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