Conscription in South Korea

Conscription in South Korea has existed since 1957 and requires male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform compulsory military service.[1][2] Women are not required to perform military service, but they may join the military.[3]


The basis for military conscription in South Korea is the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, which was promulgated on July 17, 1948. The constitution states in Article 39, "All citizens shall have the duty of national defense under the conditions as prescribed by Act."[4][5] The Military Service Act of 1949, which was implemented in 1957, specified that compulsory military service is required for men ages 19 or older.[6][2] Conscription is managed by the Military Manpower Administration, which was created in 1948.[7]


Enlistment and physical exam

By law, when a Korean man turns 18 years old, he is enlisted for "first citizen service," meaning he is liable for military duty, but is not yet required to serve.[6][8] When he turns 19 years old (or, in some instances, 20 years old), he is required to undergo a physical exam to determine whether he is suitable for military service. The table below shows the physical exam's possible grades and their outcomes, according to the Military Service Act.[9] Men must enlist by the time they turn 28.[10]

Grade Description Outcome
1, 2, 3 "Those whose physical and psychological constitution is healthy enough to perform active in army." "To be enlisted for active duty service, supplemental service or the second citizen service, based on their qualifications, such as educational background and age."
4 "Those whose physical and psychological constitution is not so healthy for active training but capable of doing supplemental service for civilians as replacements." "To be enlisted for supplemental service or the second citizen service, based on their qualifications, such as educational background and age."
5 "Those incapable of entering active or supplemental service, but capable of entering the second citizen service." "To be enlisted for the second citizen service."
6 "Those incapable of performing military service due to any disease or mental or physical incompetence." "To be exempted from military service."
7 "Those unable to be graded...due to any disease or mental or physical incompetence." "To undergo a follow-up physical examination" within two years.

Service types and length

The length of compulsory military service in South Korea varies based on military branch.[11] Active duty soldiers serve 18 months in the Army or Marine Corps, 20 months in the Navy, and 22 months in the Air Force.[12] After conscripts finish their military service, they are automatically placed on the reserve roster and are obligated to attend a few days of annual military training for 6 years. (Currently on shortening of service period, completely to be applied after 2020)

Non-active duty personnel, or "supplemental service" personnel serve for various lengths: 21 months for social work personnel (better known as public service worker - a personnel ordered to do public service work at places that require auxiliary workers such as Local community centers like City Hall, Government Agencies, and Public Facilities like Subway Station)[13] or international cooperation service personnel; 34 months for arts and sports personnel or industrial technical personnel; and 36 months for public health doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, or expert researchers.[14]

South Korea currently has among the longest military service periods in the world, ranked behind Israel, Singapore, and North Korea. In 2010, there was growing public pressure to either shorten the length of conscription or to switch to voluntary military service, and calls from experts for a gradual phasing out of conscription rather than complete abolition.[15] However, in December 2010, after taking into consideration of the 2010 ROKS Cheonan sinking and Bombardment of Yeonpyeong incidents, the South Korean government said it would not reduce service periods.[16]



Former president Park Chung-hee introduced exemptions for athletes in 1973 in an effort to win more medals for the country; some historians believe the athletics also served as a distraction against the government's unpopularity.[17] After winning a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics, wrestler Yang Jung-mo was granted the first exemption. In the 1980s, president Chun Doo-hwan promised exemptions to any athlete who won a medal in either the 1986 Asian Games or the 1988 Summer Olympics.[17]

When South Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002, their national team was guaranteed an exemption if they reached the round of 16; the same promise was made to the national baseball team in 2006 if the team reached semifinals in the World Baseball Classic. Public outrage ensued, and similar exemptions have not been granted since.[17]

Current conscription regulations stipulate that athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions from military service and are placed in Grade 4.[18] They are required to do four weeks of basic military training and engage in sports field for 42 months. After that, they are automatically placed on the reserve roster, and are obligated to attend a few days of annual military training for six years. In practice, after athletes finish their four weeks of basic military training, they are able to continue their own sports career during the 34 months of duty.[19]

The policy has resulted in coaches being accused of selecting players desperate to avoid military service instead of choosing the best athletes. Parents encourage their children to pursue sports in hopes of them receiving an exemption.[17]

Notable athletes who have been granted exemptions from military service are the bronze medal-winning football team at the 2012 Summer Olympics,[20][21] 2008 Olympic gold medalist badminton player Lee Yong-dae,[22] swimmer Park Tae-hwan,[23][24] 2014 Asian Games gold medalist tennis player Hyeon Chung,[25] 2018 Asian Games gold medalist footballer Son Heung Min, and 2018 Asian Games gold medalist baseball player Lee Jung-hoo.

E-sport competitors are not exempt from conscription.[26]

A total of 220 exemptions were granted from 2008 to 2018.[17]

Music and arts

Exemptions are also granted to violinists, pianists, and ballet performers, but not to K-pop stars, actors, or directors.[27]

Conscientious objection

The right to conscientious objection was not recognized in South Korea until recently. Over 400 men were typically imprisoned at any given time for refusing military service for political or religious reasons in the years before right to conscientious objection was established.[28]

On June 28, 2018, the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled the Military Service Act unconstitutional and ordered the government to accommodate civilian forms of military service for conscientious objectors.[29] Later that year on November 1, 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court legalized conscientious objection as a basis for rejecting compulsory military service.[30]


The following data is from 'Regulation on Public Servant Compensation', implemented on 1 January 2017.[31] Exchange rate as of November 11th 2019 (1161.88 to $1.00USD)

Private (이등병)Private first class (일등병)Corporal (상등병)Sergeant (병장)
$275.20 (approx) per month (May 2nd 2017)

$263.45 (approx) per month (November 11th 2019)

$297.85 (approx) per month (May 2nd 2017)

$285.14 (approx) per month (November 11th 2019)

$329.23 (approx) per month (May 2nd 2017)

$315.18 (approx) per month (November 11th 2019)

$364.74 (approx) per month (May 2nd 2017)

$349.18 (approx) per month (November 11th 2019)


The Ministry of National Defense has revealed that it failed to provide sneakers to 7,411 recruits who joined the military from 22 May to 4 June 2012, after the budget was insufficient for need. The Defense ministry originally projected the cost of each pair of sneakers to be 11,000 KRW. However, the actual cost turned out to be 15,000 KRW.[32]

The office of National Assembly member Kim Kwang-jin of Democratic United Party revealed that cadets in Korea Military Academy were provided with sneakers worth 60,000 KRW and tennis shoes. Cadets in Korea Army Academy at Yeongcheon were provided with sneakers worth 64,250 KRW, in addition to running shoes and soccer shoes.[33]

Dual citizens

For dual citizens, or those with multiple citizenships, male South Koreans must choose their citizenship by the time they turn 18, before March 31 of that year. If these males choose to revoke their South Korean citizenship, they will not be required to complete their mandatory military service. However, if they fail to choose their citizenship by their 18th year, they will be subjected to fulfill their mandatory military service.[34] If males choose to renounce their citizenship by their 18th year, they are ineligible to gain a Korean work visa (F series) until after they turn 40 years of age. It may still be possible to gain an E series visa.

Draft evasion

In general, the South Korean public tends to be intolerant towards men who attempt to evade mandatory military service or receive special treatment, especially if they are exploiting family wealth or political connections. Draft evasion is a punishable crime, but many entertainers, athletes, politicians and their children are known to have fabricated medical or other reasons to seek exemption from military service.[35][36] According to a 2017 report by the Military Manpower Administration, the most common evasion tactic was extreme weight loss or gain (37%), followed by fabrication of mental illness (23.7%), and deliberate full-body tattoos (20.3%).[37] Studying abroad or migrating overseas to obtain foreign citizenship are considered the preferred option for sons in wealthy families, while nearly a hundred high-ranking politicians including sitting members of the National Assembly have managed to arrange unexplained exemptions for their sons.[38] These cases of draft evasion are to be distinguished from conscientious objection on political or religious grounds.

Steve Yoo

In 2002, right before South Korean pop singer Steve Yoo was due to be drafted for his military service, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was born in Seoul and migrated to the United States at the age of 13. The South Korean government considered it an act of desertion and deported him, banning him from entering the country permanently.[39]

Song Seungheon

In late 2004, it was revealed that actor Song Seung-heon had avoided his draft by taking medication to fail the military physical examination. Song had previously been exempted by claiming to have severe diabetes and high blood pressure, but that was found by the South Korean government to be false.[40] Amidst press coverage and public outcry, Song publicly apologized and agreed to immediately serve his two-year term in the military. Song was discharged on 15 November 2006 with the rank of Corporal.[41][42]

MC Mong

On 11 April 2011, rapper MC Mong was cleared of intentionally pulling out healthy teeth to be exempted from military duty but was sentenced to a suspended jail term of 6 months, probation for one year, and 120 hours of community service, for deliberately delaying enlistment on false grounds.[43] The court acknowledged that there was a delay in his military enlistment; however, they were unable to determine whether he was guilty of extracting teeth for the purpose of avoiding his military draft. In September 2011, it was reported that Mong has been banned by Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) from appearing in its TV shows, for draft dodging.[44]

Kim Mu-yeol

In June 2012 Kim Mu-yeol came under growing public criticism over allegations he dodged his compulsory military service. In a report released by the Korean Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), Kim was deemed fit to serve in active duty as a level two recruit after a March 2001 physical examination. However, throughout 2007 to 2009, Kim was granted postponement on the grounds that he was taking civil service examinations or had been admitted to a work training facility, neither of which took place. During this time he reportedly earned approximately ₩300 million from films, musicals and television work. In December 2009, he received his final notice for enlistment, having used up the 730 days allowed for postponement. He submitted a request to change his military status in January 2010 because of a knee injury, which was rejected. Finally, a valid exemption was granted on the grounds that he was a "low-income individual" and the sole provider for his family. BAI's contention was that Kim's income is substantially higher than the standard for disqualification due to poverty; thus, the Military Manpower Administration was negligent in their duties by granting the exemption.[45][46][47]

Kim's agency Prain TPC defended him, stating that Kim had been supporting his family by working as a security guard, construction worker and at a mobile phone factory since his late teens. When his father collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, the treatments incurred a lot of debt for the family. Their worsening financial condition caused them to become totally dependent on Kim, resulting in his said filing for an exemption in 2010.[48] Given the publicity, a reinvestigation into the case was launched and Kim was asked by the production company to leave the film 11 A.M. (he was replaced by Choi Daniel).[49][50] On 4 October 2012, Kim released a statement that though there was no wrongdoing on his part, he had decided to voluntarily enter the army "to recover his honor damaged by the rumors."[51][52]

See also


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  2. Lee, Namhee (2007). The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea. Cornell University Press. p. 91. ISBN 0801445663.
  3. "S. Korea to expand women's role in military". Yonhap News Agency. 20 December 2017. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  4. "Constitution of the Republic of Korea" (PDF). 1987. p. 12. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  5. Kim, Jongcheol (2012). "Constitutional Law". Introduction to Korean Law. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 78. ISBN 3642316891.
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  7. "History". Military Manpower Administration. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  8. "Military Service Act, Article 5". Korean Legislation Research Institute. Archived from the original on 16 April 2017. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  9. "Military Service Act, Articles 10-14". Korean Legislation Research Institute. Archived from the original on 16 April 2017. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  10. "New Korean military service laws mean male idols must enlist by age 28". Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  11. Lent, Jesse (1 April 2016). "'Descendants Of The Sun' Star Song Joong Ki Discusses His Time In The South Korean Army". Korea Portal. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  12. "Military Service Act, Article 18". Korea Legislation Research Institute. Archived from the original on 16 April 2017. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  13. "The first step toward military service: The medical exam". The Korea Herald. 14 May 2019.
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  18. "제68조의11(예술ㆍ체육요원의 추천 등) [Article 68-11: Recommendation of arts and sports personnel, etc.]". 병역법 시행령 [Military Service Act Implementation Rules]. South Korea: Ministry of Government Legislation. 29 November 2016. Retrieved 6 April 2018. 법 제33조의7제1항 전단에서 "대통령령으로 정하는 예술·체육 분야의 특기를 가진 사람"이란 다음 각 호의 어느 하나에 해당하는 사람을 말한다. ... 4. 올림픽대회에서 3위 이상으로 입상한 사람(단체경기종목의 경우에는 실제로 출전한 선수만 해당한다) 5. 아시아경기대회에서 1위로 입상한 사람(단체경기종목의 경우에는 실제로 출전한 선수만 해당한다). [In Article 33, Paragraph 7, Subparagraph 2 of the Act, 'a person having special talents in arts and athletics fields, as defined by presidential order' refers to persons to whom are applicable any one of the provisions of the following subparagraphs. ... 4. A person who received a prize for ranked third or above at the Olympics (in the case of team events, only applicable to athletes who actually participated). 5. A person who received a prize for ranking first at the Asian Games (in the case of team events, only applicable to athletes who actually participated).]
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  38. 이지용,서태욱,연규욱,유준호,황순민,양연호,임형준. [단독] 고위공직자 92명 軍면제 代물림…국적포기까지 불사 - 매일경제. (in Korean). Retrieved 12 May 2019.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  44. "KBS, MBC release list of 36 banned entertainers" Dong-A Ilbo. 28 September 2011. 2011-10-14
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