Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Do young male refugees from North Korea also have to serve in South Korean military?
North Korean refugees are exempt from mandatory military service in South Korea. However, since the amendments to the relevant law in 1984, North Korean refugees can volunteer to enlist in the South Korean military if they wish to.
There is a story of a young man who escaped from North Korea at the age of 10 in 2005 and settled down in South Korea. After graduating from high school, he volunteered to serve in the Air Force. This young man was born in Onsong country of North Hamgyong Province in 1995. At the age of 4, his family made their first attempt at escaping from North Korea. While living in China, they got caught and sent back to North Korea where they had to spent a year in prison. As hard and challenging as it was, they made another attempt and finally succeeded in arriving in South Korea when he was 10.
Apparently, his parents were strongly opposed to his idea of serving in military. They were deeply worried about whether their son would be able to make it through to the end. But with his unwavering desire to serve in the ROK Air Force, he convinced his parents and went on to serve as a South Korean citizen.
I heard that this young man chose to serve in the Air Force because he graduated from aviation high school. According to news articles I read, he served in the aviation unit in Wonju, Gangwon Province. During the interview, he said the most difficult time was when faced with North Korean military provocations. His whole barrack was on high alert and couldn’t rest even on weekends. He says he resented North Korea a lot at that time.
The ROK Air Force made it confidential that he originally came from North Korea. Top officials in the Air Force decided that they would not reveal that this young man is a North Korean defector until his discharge. They were concerned that it would adversely affect him during his service.
I thought that I would have served in the Korean military if I hadn’t had my wife and daughter to support
According to the Air Force, this young man was an exemplary airman and the Air Force recommended that he continue to serve in the Air Force as a lifetime occupation. However, he decided to discharge after completing his term of military service, as he wished to become an aircraft mechanic and financially support his parents. I think that it was a good decision on the part of Air Force to keep it a secret that he is a North Korean refugee. I think this young man was able to successfully complete his military service because the Air Force was considerate of him.
According to the Military Manpower Administration of ROK, this young man was the first North Korean to successfully complete military service in South Korea. Some North Koreans have had volunteered to serve in the ROK military in the past. However, they have all dropped out on the way. After reading news reports about this young man, I thought that I would have served in the Korean military if I hadn’t had my wife and daughter to support.
A SOCIAL BARRIER
Whenever my male co-workers talk about their time in military during break at work, I have nothing to talk about. If I had done mandatory military service like them, I would be able to join their conversation. It is one of the times I wish I served in military. Although I was born in North Korea, now I’m a South Korean citizen no matter what. South Korea is my country, now. I am willing to serve the country I consider home now.
I have one daughter now. But if I happen to have a son later, I would encourage my son to complete his mandatory military service no matter what. If my wife and I have a son, he will be born and raised in South Korea. He will not be classified as a North Korean refugee since he will not be from North Korea. Thus, he will not be exempt from mandatory military service like I was, being from North Korea. Unlike the parents of the young man from the news story, I will encourage my son to serve the country like any other South Korean man.
As I have not served in the military in either North or South Korea, I have nothing to talk about when guys at my work talk about their time in military over coffee or beer
South Korean men like to talk about their time in military when they get together. There’s a saying in South Korea: Women hate when men talk about soccer and military. What women hate the most is when men talk about playing soccer in military. As I have not served in the military in either North or South Korea, I have nothing to talk about when guys at my work talk about their time in military over coffee or beer.
Though, I have not served in North Korean military either, from what I know from North Korea, I think the food is the major difference between North Korean and South Korean militaries. A North Korean soldier gets salted radish with corn. That’s all they get to eat for every meal. When they run out of radish and corn, they get three potatoes at mealtime.
When North Korean refugees enter South Korea, the first place they go is Hanawon. Prior to the health examination at Hanawon, they can apply to be exempt from military service. Between 2011 and 2015, 1,607 North Korean men were exempt from mandatory military service and I’m one of them. Now that I have a wife and a young daughter to feed and support, I can’t go back on this decision. But after reading about the young man who completed his mandatory military service, I can’t help but feel envious and admire him.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman