Human Rights of South Korean Soldiers

By Jungwook Hur

Published Date: 2021 / 07 / 31

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In 2021, the number of active South Korean soldiers, officially known as ROK Armed Forces, is estimated to be around 555,000. This large number owes itself to the conscription of South Korea that mandates all men in their 20s or 30s to serve from a year and a half to two years in the military. These conscripted soldiers dedicate themselves to the country yet receive little pay, which never exceeds $600 per month during their service despite its gradual increase. Regardless of the fact that they were called to serve in the military, every soldier who defends the country deserves the corresponding respect. Nonetheless, this idea does not seem to correlate to the recognition of soldiers in South Korea. The conscripted young soldiers are not even provided a proper meal, and issues of sexual harassment on female soldiers constantly break out in the military.
On April 18th, on the Facebook page where army soldiers could freely upload posts, one photo was uploaded of a meal provided to a soldier who returned from his layoff. However, the meal lacked all the main dishes and was unbalanced in nutrition, mainly composed of simple rice and vegetables. Following disclosures of other soldiers with photos attached proved that the problem of the poorly organized meals was not just confined to a few military bases but rather the general problem of the military system. The problem was especially severe for soldiers returning from furlough, who had to self-isolate for a few weeks but were not provided proper meals or adequate basic facilities such as showers.
The conscripted male soldiers are not the only ones who are going through hardships. Numerous incidents of sexual harassment on female soldiers by their superiors were reported throughout the first half of the year, leading one of the victims to even commit suicide. However, apart from the initial sexual violence, the fundamental problems of the military system that allowed the tragedy to happen were revealed through the investigation. The superior officer’s evaluation of a soldier plays a significant role in the soldier’s promotion or approval as a professional soldier, which hinders victims from reporting the wrongdoing of their superiors. Furthermore, secondary victimization also turned out to be a prevailing problem. The officer to which a victim reported the harm she suffered often blamed the victim for the matter and tried to conceal the issue instead of punishing the assailant, failing the victim’s last hope.
The breakouts in the military demonstrate the structural problems of the military. Nonetheless, the military authorities fail to address the genuine issues and keep suggesting superficial solutions such as increasing the meat in soldiers’ meals by 10~20 grams or making certain weeks special report weeks for the soldiers to notify misdemeanors in their bases, which will never bring an essential improvement to the issues. In fact, these kinds of ideas have always been mentioned by authorities. Still, the ones that brought fundamental changes were public attention, as the notorious meals of certain bases changed immediately after the problem was revealed to the public by soldiers’ usage of their phones and SNS. Rather than by the unrealistic solutions provided by the authorities, sexual harassment against female soldiers will be lessened significantly if the process of assessment of soldiers becomes transparent, not mainly being based on the officers’ subjective judgements. If the authorities demonstrate their incongruity to their supposed roles, the assessment process should be changed to protect soldiers instead of applying the exact, ineffective solutions repeatedly.

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