What is military service in South Korea?

(CNN Spanish) — Members of the popular K-Pop group BTS will begin military service in South Korea, mandatory for all young men who meet physical and mental health requirements, and are likely to reunite as a new group from 2025. Here’s an overview of the system for recruiting a country ever alert to the threat from its neighbor to the north.

South Korean contemporary culture, from pop groups to Netflix series, has taken the world by storm. As they break records inside and outside the home, his characters face the reality of the law: they must comply with the mandatory military service imposed on men between the ages of 18 and 35, which is a minimum of 18 months.

The keys to compulsory military service in South Korea

The number of months of mandatory service depends on the branch of the armed forces one serves in, according to the CIA World Factbook. In the Army and Marine Corps, the requirement is 18 months (down from the 24 months young men previously had to serve, according to a Brookings Institution analysis). The figure of 18 rises to 20 for the Navy and 21 for the Air Force.

By 2022, the armed forces have nearly 555,000 active duty personnel. The majority of them, about 420,000, are part of the army. There are about 70,000 members of the Navy, including about 30,000 Marines and about 65,000 people in the Air Force, according to the CIA.

Women have also served in the armed forces since 1950 and can be in all branches, but service is optional. By 2020, they represent about 7.5% of the military on active duty.

South Korea has a strong defense industry. It manufactures, among other equipment, armored fighting vehicles, warships, aircraft and artillery. It also has imported equipment. Its main supplier is the USA.

Currently, there are Korean soldiers stationed in various missions, for example in Lebanon (about 250), in South Sudan (280) and in the United Arab Emirates (170). It also has about 300 troops in the waters off the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

conscientious objection

In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the right of conscientious objectors to join the military, ending a decades-long policy of imprisoning those who refuse to join the armed forces.

“Refusal to enter the military because of a religious belief that prohibits the carrying of arms is considered a valid reason for refusal to serve,” the court said then, after decades of fighting, particularly by Jehovah’s Witnesses, to oppose the strict law on military service.

Over 65 years, the country has jailed more than 19,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in mandatory military service, according to religious officials.

The recruit demographic challenge

According to expert analysis, the South Korean military is facing many challenges and one of them is demographics. An analysis published by the Carnegie Endowment Center projects new recruits will drop from 330,000 in late 2020 to about 240,000 by 2036 and 186,000 by 2039.

“Thus, the South Korean military will face a growing manpower shortage from the mid-2020s if it intends to maintain a base strength of about 274,000 conscripts in its 522,000 troops,” the analysis said, a trend that also is likely to affect the number of volunteers the military can get.

Powers closely allied with the United States

The United States and South Korea have a long tradition of military cooperation. A 1953 treaty obliges the North American side to provide aid in the event of an attack, particularly by North Korea, and allows the Americans to station forces on Korean soil. In fact, by 2022, there were more than 25,000 US troops in the Asian country.

In addition, the South Korean military supported the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

South Korea has major non-NATO ally status with the United States, giving it advantages in defense-related business activities and security cooperation. NATO views South Korea as a partner and the country participates in the bloc’s dialogues, missions and exercises.

BTS managed to delay the service

South Korea’s parliament passed a bill in 2020 that would allow pop stars, namely those who “stand out in popular culture and art,” to defer their service until age 30.

BTS is expected to reunite as a group around 2025, according to BIGHIT Music.

The record company said it had been looking for the best time for the band to call off military service “to respect the needs of the country and these healthy young men”, saying the time was “now”.

“Group member Jin (who turns 30 this year) will begin the process as soon as he completes his schedule for his solo release at the end of October. After that, the appointment procedure from the Korean government will follow,” the label said. He added, “Other members of the group plan to do their military service based on their own individual plans.”

The country’s defense minister said in August that BTS could still perform overseas concerts while serving in the military, Reuters reported.

With reporting by CNN’s Angela Reyes, Chloe Melas, Jake Kwon, James Griffiths, Marian Liu, Yongjung Seo and Amy Woodyatt.

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