Military and security forces: Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea: Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), Navy (ROKN, includes Marine Corps, ROKMC), Air Force (ROKAF); Military reserves include Mobilization Reserve Forces (First Combat Forces) and Homeland Defense Forces (Regional Combat Forces); Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries: Korea Coast Guard (2019) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Armed forces personnel (percentage of total labor force): 2.1 percent (compared to 9 percent in North Korea and .8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank ]

Number of people in the military (active): 599,000 (compared 74,200 in Argentina, 1,358,193 in the United States, 0 in Costa Rica, and 2,035,000 in China). South Korea: reserve: 3,100,000; paramilitary: 3,009,000; total: 6,708,000; per 1000 capita total: 130.5; per 1000 capita active: 11.6. [Source: Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Military personnel: approximately 600,000 active duty personnel (465,000 Army; 70,000 Navy/Marines; 65,000 Air Force) (2019 est.) = About half the active duty personnel are conscripts. A declining birth rate and small families have prompted concerns about there being enough men to fulfill the ranks in the future.

Military service age and obligation: 18-28 years of age for compulsory military service; minimum conscript service obligation varies by service- 21 months (Army, Marines), 23 months (Navy), 24 months (Air Force); 18-26 years of age for voluntary military service; women, in service since 1950, are able to serve in all branches (2019) South Korea intends to reduce the length of military service to 18 – 22 months by 2022 =

Military Manpower and Equipment of South Korea

South Korea's military manpower has been ranked 11th in the world, above North Korea which ranked 25th, by Global Firepower, which annually ranks the world's armed forces. In 2016, South Korea ranked as 11th of 126 nations with a Global Firepower (GFP) Power Index rating of 0.2824 (0.0000 being perfect) Total Population: 49,115,196
Available Manpower: 25,610,000
Fit for Service: 21,035,000
Reaching Military Age Annually: 690,000
Active Frontline Personnel: 625,000
Active Reserve Personnel: 2,900,000

Military Forces in the Early 2000s
North Korea — South Korea — United States in South Korea — United States in Japan
Total Troops — 1,200,000 — 686,000 — 38,000 — 42,000
Ground Forces — 950,000 — 560,000 — 28,000 — 21,000
Naval Forces — 46,000 — 60,000 — 340 — 7,700
Air Forces — 86,000 — 63,000 — 8,700 — 13,100
Reserve Forces — 4,700,000 — 4,500,000
Tanks — 3,500 — 2,330 — 259
Artillery — 10,400 — 4,800 — 90

Multiple-rocket launchers — 2,400 — 114 — 36

Combat Aircraft — 850 — 550 — 102
Attack Helicopters50 — 140 — 18
Helicopters — 310 — 630
Major Combat Ships — 3 — 39 — 0
Patrol Ships — 424 — 105
Submarines 26 — 20 — 0

Defense Budget of South Korea

Military expenditures: 2.7 percent of GDP (gross domestic product, 2019) (compared to 25.5 percent in North Korea, 5.3 percent in the United States and 0.6 percent in Ghana); Compared with other countries in the world South Korea ranks 33rd. South Korea’s military expenditures were 2.6 percent of GDP in 2018; 2.4 percent of GDP in 2017; 2.5 percent of GDP in 2016; 2.5 percent of GDP in 2015. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The defense budget in 2015 was US$33.2 billion. In 2005 it totaled US$20.7 billion. In 2004 South Korea’s defense budget was US$16.4 billion, which represented approximately 3 percent of GDP and 16 percent of the total budget (roughly in line with the previous two years). Defense spending for 2004 was up from US$14.6 billion in 2003, US$13.2 billion in 2002, US$11.8 billion in 2001, US$12.8 billion in 2000, and US$11.6 billion in 1999.

Defense spending in 2013 was US$32.3 billion, up 4.2 percent from 2012. The military budget in 2002 was US$11.8 billion compared to US$5.2 billion in North Korea. An additional US$10.6 billion was spent by U.S. forces in South Korea. According to the 1998 Defense White Paper, the 1997 defense expenditure accounted for about 15 percent of the national government budget. Weapons and equipment modernization and the operational costs of the three armed services and the armed forces reserves are the main items in the defense budget.

Seoul's defense budget increased in proportion to the growth of the national economy throughout the 1970s and 1980, demonstrating how strongly national leaders felt about improving the armed forces. Between 1971 and 1975, defense spending increased from US$411 million to US$719 million. Defense expenditures averaged about 4.5 percent of the country's gross national product (GNP). In 1976, the first year that the government included proceeds from the defense tax in published figures for military expenditures, the budget for the armed forces and defense industries increased 100 percent over the 1975 figure to US$1.5 billion. The costs involved in initiating weapons production and the loss of military grant aid from the United States were the major reasons for the gradual increase of defense spending from 5.2 percent of GNP in 1979 to 6.2 percent of GNP in 1982. By 1990 defense spending had increased to almost US$10 billion a year, but because of the dramatic growth in the country's economy, this figure was below 30 percent of the government's budget and less than 5 percent of GNP for the first time since 1975. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Annual defense budgets were proposed by the Ministry of National Defense and approved by the president following consultations with the National Assembly. Beginning in fiscal year (FY) 1979, the Ministry of National Defense adopted a budget management system based on the United States Department of Defense project planning budget system. The South Korean system focused on force modernization and the maintenance of military organizations in peacetime at 70 percent of their wartime strength. The government's mobilization and resource management plans for support of the military were designed to bring the armed forces up to full strength quickly and to maintain the country's capability to supply the military during wartime. Under the 1987 Constitution, the National Assembly was accorded more responsibility to review the defense budget and to recommend appropriate levels of spending. In 1990, however, the president continued to have the final say on budget matters.*

Approximately 40 percent of the defense budget was devoted to weapons and equipment modernization in 1990. Defense planners established a number of long-range goals: to establish an independent reconnaissance system with intelligence satellites and early warning aircraft; to improve the quality of firepower and the accuracy of domestically produced weapons; to deploy indigenously produced surface-to-air and tactical surface-to- surface missiles; and to replace outdated fighter aircraft and naval vessels with technologically advanced models that would neutralize the threat of North Korea's modern weapon systems.*

The operational costs of the three armed services constituted approximately 35 percent of the defense budget. Improvements in training, logistical support to combat units, and pay and benefits provided to military personnel were a part of the increased cost of supporting the armed forces. The acquisition of sophisticated new types of weapons, although contributing to national security, also increased operational costs.*

The remaining 25 percent of the defense budget was mostly allocated among the armed forces reserves; South Korea's share of the United States-Republic of Korea combined defense improvement program; research into new defense technologies; and construction and maintenance of military installations.*

South Korean Defense Strategy

There are three critical stages to the South Korean defense strategy: the Kill Chain, the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan. Stage one involves eliminating North Korean nuclear and missile facilities before a nuclear weapon can be fired once a preemptive strike is detected. Stage two focuses on intercepting incoming missiles. Stage three involves surgical strikes and special forces operations against the North Korean leadership and key assets.

James Hardy wrote in The National Interest: South Korea's Hyunmu-2 ballistic missile and Hyunmu-3 cruise missile are the pointy end of a spear that South Korean officials call "Kill Chain": an ambitious program that aims to knock out North Korea's ballistic missiles while they were still on the ground. “Kill Chain” was elucidated in the 2012 White Paper, which stated that "the ROK military will decisively strike not only the origin of enemy provocation, but also the command and support forces behind the provocation.” “To this end, the ROK military is not only reinforcing its precision surveillance, target acquisition, and precision strike capabilities in the Northwest Islands and the surrounding areas, but is also significantly strengthening its 'immediate retaliation forces', including air defense and anti-missile defense capabilities, as well as airborne and standby forces," the paper added. [Source: James Hardy, The National Interest, July 2, 2014]

“The key driver for this is the transfer of military operational control (OPCON) from U.S. to South Korean command... Along with “Kill Chain” Seoul is building the KAMD local missile-defense system based on second-hand Patriot missile batteries and locally built air-defense radars. However, there are serious reservations about “Kill Chain”, one of which is whether it will actually work. Perhaps the most compelling argument against it was made by Yonsei University Professor Choi Jong-kun, who, in 2013, outlined for the Hankyoreh newspaper the core problems with the program.

“The first is its ambitious scope: “Kill Chain” has to find evidence of an imminent threat anywhere in North Korea, assess it and pass a viable risk assessment to the top of South Korea's military command in minutes so it can order a pre-emptive strike. The system then has to scan North Korea for secondary sites that may also be preparing to launch ballistic missiles. Even if South Korea invests heavily in its ISR capabilities, the sheer size of North Korea–and the fact that much of its military infrastructure is underground–suggests Seoul will be hard-pressed to supply the blanket surveillance it would need to function.

“The second major issue critics have with "Kill Chain" is the preemptive doctrine on which it is based. Proponents argue that it sends exactly the right kind of message to Pyongyang: that North Korea’s mobile ballistic-missile program is not the deterrent it thought it would be, and in an arms race, its much richer southern neighbor has time and resources on its side. The counterargument, helpfully outlined by North Korean state newspaper Rodung Sinmun, is that it unnecessarily aggravates tensions on the peninsula. "If the puppets launch a preemptive strike, or even make a twitch, they will face our merciless revenge," the paper wrote in an October 2013 editorial.

Military's Role in South Korean Society

As the 1990s began, the armed forces remained the largest and most influential government organization in South Korea. Over 75 percent of South Korean males over the age of twenty had served in the regular army, the reserves, or the Homeland Reserve Force, or had been assigned duties supporting the armed forces under the Conscription Law of 1949. The National Technicians Law gave the Ministry of National Defense the authority to order civilian industrial plants to produce military items and to draft technicians with special skills into military service during wartime. The Act Concerning Protection of Military Secrets limited the freedom of the press to report on military affairs. The Military Installation Protection Law restricted civilian access to areas around military installations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Defense White Paper, 1988, a report on the armed forces and military preparedness and the first comprehensive document ever prepared by the Ministry of National Defense for the public, noted several initiatives the Roh administration had undertaken to address these concerns. During both the Park and Chun administrations, students who frequently demonstrated against the government had been expelled from school and drafted into the army, where they were treated harshly unless they demonstrated a willingness to accept government doctrine on opposing communism, promoting the common good of society, and showing respect for military and political power figures. In the Defense White Paper, 1988, the Roh administration announced that new conscription policies had been formulated that would standardize selection procedures and end past abuses. Officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were under orders to follow a new military protocol that respected the rights of soldiers as citizens. Another measure announced in 1988 was the abolition of the Student Defense Corps, a military training organization established at South Korean colleges in 1969 to provide mandatory lectures on the government's national security policies and mobilization plans and instruction in handling weapons and military tactics.*

Changes in the living and working environment on military bases were to include the gradual elimination of barracks and office buildings constructed in the 1950s, expansion of education programs to prepare soldiers for selected jobs in the civilian sector before their discharge, and small increases in pay. Additionally, in order to alleviate civil-military discord, the Roh administration planned to relocate many of the bases in urban areas to suburban or rural areas as soon as possible. Urban growth around military installations in large cities, including Seoul, Pusan, Taejon, Inch'on, Ch'unch'on, Masan, Wonju, Uijongbu, and Chinhae, had compromised the security of these bases and day-to-day military activities; in turn, the bases themselves had disturbed the normal commercial and social activities of civilians.*

In the 1980s, in addition to their regular military duties, military units continued the traditional practice of aiding farmers in planting and harvesting rice, assisting civil authorities in preventing loss of life and property during and following natural disasters, delivering medical services in rural areas, and providing other social services. In 1987 a total of 561,000 military personnel helped local farmers plant their rice, and 392,000 military personnel were made available for harvesting the crop. The army and the Homeland Reserve Force — more than 1 million troops — were mobilized in July 1987 to perform rescue operations and repair wind and flood damage caused by a typhoon. Stranded civilians were evacuated to safety, temporary dikes were constructed to prevent flood damage, debris was cleared from roads, and temporary shelters were constructed for the homeless.*

Military Production in South Korea

From the end of the Korean War to 1990, South Korea had evolved from a country dependent on other nations for its national security to a strong and growing nation, increasingly capable of meeting its own defense needs. Civilian industries maintained military assembly lines as a separate, and generally small, part of their corporate activities.

The Defense Industry Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense was the government agency responsible for managing the quantity and quality of domestically produced weapons and equipment. In 1990 South Korean industries provided about 70 percent of the weapons, ammunition, communications and other types of equipment, vehicles, clothing, and other supplies needed by the military. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Weapons production for the army began in 1971 when the Ministry of National Defense constructed a plant to assemble United States-designed Colt M-16 rifles. The memorandum of agreement between the United States and the Republic of Korea authorized production of enough rifles to supply South Korean army units. However, the agreement prohibited the production of additional M-16s without the permission of Colt Industries and the United States government. In the mid-1970s, South Korea signed agreements to begin licensed production of many types of United States-designed weapons, including grenades, mortars, mines, and recoilless rifles, with the same stipulations as those for the M-16 rifle. South Korea also began to manufacture ammunition for the weapons it produced for the army.*

By 1990 South Korean companies had army contracts to produce tanks, self-propelled and towed field guns, two types of armored vehicles, and two types of helicopters. A division of Hyundai produced the 88 Tank (formerly called the K-1 tank) at Ch'angwon. The K-1 was the result of a joint United States-South Korean design. The 88 Tank's 105mm gun was an improved version of the same caliber gun that was standard on South Korea's M-48A5 tanks. Although a few components of the tanks' fire control and transmission systems were imported, Hyundai and South Korean subcontractors manufactured most of the systems. One of the Samsung Group's businesses produced 155mm M-109 self-propelled howitzers. KIA Machine Tool was the manufacturer for the KH-178 105mm and the KH-179 155mm towed field guns. The KH-178 and KH179 guns were derived from United States-designed artillery but were considered indigenously designed. Daewoo Industries and Asia Motors had a coproduction agreement for an Italian-designed wheeled, armored personnel vehicle. Bell Helicopters Textron of the United States and Samsung coproduced UH-1 helicopters. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, also of the United States, had a contract with Daewoo to coproduce H-76 helicopters.*

In December 1989, the Ministry of National Defense selected the McDonnell Douglas FA-18 to be the second United Statesdesigned fighter aircraft to be coproduced in South Korea. Samsung's aerospace division was awarded a contract to manufacture the airframe and engine; Lucky-Goldstar became the subcontractor for the aircraft's avionics. McDonnell Douglas agreed to deliver twelve FA-18s to the South Korean air force in 1993 and to assist Samsung with the later assembly of 108 aircraft in South Korea. As of 1990, the entire FA-18 program was under review because of increased costs. Korean Air used its depot maintenance facilities at Kimhae to overhaul most types of aircraft in service with the South Korean air force. Additionally, the United States Air Force contracted with Korean Air for the maintenance of its F-4, F-15, A-10, and C-130 aircraft stationed in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.*

In 1990 South Korean shipbuilders were building two indigenously designed naval vessels, and they had coproduction agreements with United States, Italian, and German companies for several other types of ships. Four shipbuilders — Hyundai, Daewoo, Korea Tacoma, and Korean Shipbuilding and Engineering — constructed South Korean-designed Ulsan-class frigates and Tonghae-class corvettes for the navy. During the 1980s, Korea Tacoma, a South Korean-owned subsidiary of the United States Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, produced one class of patrol gunboat and one class of landing ship for the navy. The Kirogi-class patrol boat was a larger model of the Tacoma-designed Schoolboyclass patrol boat manufactured in South Korea during the 1970s. The Kirogi-class patrol boat, a 170-ton vessel, required a thirty-one-person crew and was equipped with five guns: one 40mm single-barreled Bofors on the bow, two 30mm twin-barreled Emerson Electrics in the stern, and two 20mm Oerlikon twin-barreled guns behind the bridge. The Kirogi-class patrol boat, with a range of 700 kilometers and a maximum speed of 38 knots, was well suited for its inshore patrol mission.*

The Mulgae-class landing ship, another naval vessel designed and produced in the United States by Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, was ordered by the navy to augment a small amphibious fleet that comprised several models of obsolescent transport craft produced in the United States during World War II and transferred to the South Korean navy in the 1960s and 1970s. The Mulgae-class landing ship was designed to carry an infantry company with its weapons, mechanized and wheeled vehicles, and other supplies. It had a range of 560 kilometers and a maximum speed of 13 knots. In 1986 South Korea's Kangnam Shipbuilding Corporation began construction of the Swallow/Chebi class minehunter, which was based on the Italian-designed Lerici-class. At that time, the South Korean navy had only eight United States-produced Kunsanclass minesweepers in service with the three fleets. The Swallowclass minehunter had new types of sonar and mine countermeasure equipment that was expected to improve the navy's capability to locate and to eliminate minefields in international shipping lanes during wartime.*

In the late 1980s, production of submarines designed by the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was initiated. Three 150-ton submarines designed by the Howaldswerke Shipbuilding Corporation were in service with the navy in 1990. Howaldswerke also had plans to provide technical assistance for the construction of three Type 209 submarines, about 1,400 tons each. South Korean military planners were interested in using submarines to protect critical shipping lanes from North Korean submarines in wartime.*

Military Preparedness and Strategic Planning In South Korea

Government policies on emergency preparedness were designed to quickly mobilize civilian personnel and resources to support the military during wartime. The Military Manpower Law delegated responsibility to the Office of Military Manpower Administration of the Ministry of National Defense for maintaining computerized records on all civilians who were eligible to serve in the Homeland Reserve Force. Men and women between the ages of twenty and sixty who had not been assigned duties in the military reserves but had technical skills needed by the military could also be assigned to support the military during wartime or a national emergency declared by the president and approved by the National Assembly under Article 77 of the 1987 Constitution. As the 1990s began, an estimated 5 million men and women were available for wartime duties in the Homeland Reserve Force and designated civilian industries that would produce, repair, and deliver defense goods to the military in wartime. Another important element of emergency preparedness was a plan to mobilize civilian ships, aircraft, heavy construction equipment, and other types of vehicles and equipment useful to the military in wartime. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Under provisions of the Emergency Prepared Resources Management Law, provincial and local government authorities were responsible for registering civilian assets that were to be included in the plan. Periodic exercises of the plan were conducted to test mobilization procedures. Local governments were required to provide the Ministry of National Defense and other appropriate ministries, including the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transportation, with their mobilization plans.*

Under the terms of the 1954 Republic of Korea-United States of America Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States and South Korea agreed to cooperate in defending the security and strategic interests of both countries. South Korea's deployment of army and marine units to South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated its commitment to meeting its obligations under the treaty. By 1990 the United States had stationed 44,500 military personnel in South Korea — a signal to North Korea and other countries in the region that Washington would meet its security commitments to Seoul under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

The National Security Council and the Ministry of National Defense were the primary executive bodies responsible for military affairs in the 1990s. The former, comprising the prime minister, the director of the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP), and the ministers of national defense, foreign affairs, home affairs, and finance, was responsible for advising the president on security issues and was convened at the pleasure of the president. The Ministry of National Defense was organized into bureaus responsible for force development, budget, personnel, reserve forces, logistics, military installations, medical affairs, the defense industry, and the military education system. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

South Korea Military Reforms in the 2010s

In November 2010, Yeonpyeong — a South Korean island near North Korea — was shelled by North Korean artillery, killing four South Koreans and injuring 19 and causing widespread damage on the island. The attack following a South Korean artillery exercise in disputed waters near the island. North Korean forces fired around 170 artillery shells and rockets at Yeonpyeong Island, hitting both military and civilian targets. South Korea retaliated by shelling North Korean gun positions. [Source: Wikipedia]

In March 2010, the ROKS Cheonan — a South Korean Navy Pohang-class corvette,, carrying 104 personnel was sunk off South Korea’s west coast near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 seamen. The cause of the sinking remains in dispute. The most likely culprit was a North Korea torpedo..North Korea denied that it was responsible for the sinking.

Both incidents caused an escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula and one way South Korea responded was by reform its military. Reuters reported: South Korea unveiled a series of military reforms, including fast-tracking the purchase of fighter jets and spy planes, in response to the two deadly attacks on the peninsula in 2010. the military was not a matter of choice but a must. Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Seoul would purchase high-altitude spy drones and stealth fighter jets and deploy them earlier than planned to strengthen deterrence against the North. "The aim is to proactively deter current threats posed by the enemy rather than cope with potential threats in the future," Kim told a news conference in Seoul. The military will also purchase advanced artillery-detecting radar systems and precision-guided weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) to neutralise the North''s artillery pieces hidden in mountain caves, the ministry said. [Source: Reuters, March 8, 2011]

The North alone has more than 5,000 multiple-launch rockets pointed at the capital Seoul which, with its satellite cities, is home to some 25 million people. In 2010, Seoul asked Washington to sell it US-made RQ-4 Global Hawk spy planes. The South's military had originally planned to introduce the unmanned spy drones by 2015 but decided to speed up the deployment of the world's most advanced reconnaissance planes to strengthen its intelligence abilities, according to the source. At the same time, South Korea will buy 60 stealth fighter jets earlier than scheduled, a senior official at the defence ministry was quoted by Yonhap as saying. Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing's newly designed F-15 Silent Eagle and the Eurofighter Typhoon made by the European consortium are expected to compete for the order estimated at 10 trillion won. South Korea has purchased 60 of Boeing's F-15 fighter jets under the first two stages of the fighter modernisation programme, code-named F-X since 2002.

“Kim also announced changes to the command structure to improve efficiency in the 73-point reform. The defence ministry and military were criticised for their perceived slow and weak response to the attacks in 2010. An attempt to restart inter-Korean dialogue broke down in February. The South said it saw no sign the North was serious about talks. Both the North and South have since renewed calls for dialogue. Regional powers have nudged the rivals to defuse the crisis and restart international talks over the North's nuclear programme.

Women in the South Korean Military

Women have been part of the South Korean military since 1950, the beginning of the Korean War. They are able to serve in all branches, including special forces. But their presence has been limited, both by constitutional and cultural restraints. In the early 1990s, the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished, and women were integrated into the various branches of the armed forces. The South Korean armed forces plan to recruit women to a level of 5 percent of the total officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the three services by 2020. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

Women who join the South Korean military endure basic training like men and are given instruction in tae kwon do and bayonet use as well as learning how drive tanks and fire M-16s. At least in the 1990s, and maybe still today, women are also taught how wear traditional Korean clothes and bow properly and are given classes on women's military history. In the late 1990s, only 2,100 of the 690,000 troops on active duty were women, and they were mostly nurses and clerks.

The role of women in the army has changed in the late twentieth century. A small, all-volunteer Women's Army Corps (WAC) was made a separate unit of the army in 1971. Women were required to be high-school graduates, were enlisted for a twoyear tour of duty, and their military occupational specialties limited to nursing and a few other noncombat positions. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In September 1989, the National Assembly revised the military personnel law which governed the WAC, and the WAC was officially deactivated on December 30, 1989. Female soldiers were formally reassigned to seven branches within the army: infantry, administration, intelligence, finance, education and information, logistics, and medical service. A separate WAC school and personnel center remained.*

Young-Ha Kim wrote in the New York Times: In the 1950s, “female soldiers mainly held administrative and support positions. Women began to take on combat roles in the 1990s when the three military academies, exclusive to men, began accepting women. In 2013, female soldiers numbered more than 8,200 in a total military force of 639,000 soldiers. Women are banned from select marine and commando units because of the strength requirements” but “their enrollment has climbed steadily. [Source: Young-Ha Kim, New York Times, March 5, 2014]

More than 10,000 Women in South Korea's Military

In 2016, the South Korean defense ministry said a record number of women, more than 10,000 of them, were serving in the South Korean military and they made up 5.5 percent of the senior military ranks. Elizabeth Shim of UPI wrote: According to the data taken from a survey conducted in June, there are 10,263 women in South Korea's army, navy and marine corps, Yonhap reported. [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, September 26, 2016]

“A total of 6,915 women are in the army, 1,264 in the navy and 1,694 serve in the air force. Women in the marine corps total 390, according to the report presented to South Korean lawmaker Seo Young-kyo. South Korea's military also has two women serving as brigadier generals, 823 field officers, 3,924 company officers, 24 warrant officers and 5,490 petty officers. Seoul had planned to raise the share of women serving in senior positions to 7 percent by 2020, but the data shows that target could be reached earlier, according to Yonhap.

“As more women enter the armed forces, the number of married couples with both partners in the military has subsequently increased. In late 2015, there were 2,229 military couples, according to Seoul's data.”

Attractiveness of the Military to South Korean Women

Young-Ha Kim wrote in the New York Times: “Military academies are very popular with women. As South Korea’s economic growth has slowed, full-time jobs have become scarce, especially for women.In contrast to the rate of male labor participation (the labor force as a percentage of the whole population) of 73.3 percent, the rate for women is 49.9 percent. Even young women who find good jobs can have their careers sidelined by maternity leave and child care. [Source: Young-Ha Kim, New York Times, March 5, 2014]

“The military comes with attractive benefits, especially for women, who are rarely derailed from advancement when they have babies. The 2010 census showed that women in the military have a fertility rate of 1.61 children, compared with a national rate of 1.15 children per woman. A military career offers the stability many South Korean women crave.

“President Park Geun-hye announced, “If the key is to utilize the female work force in order to maintain economic growth, we have to ensure that talented women do not have to endure a disruption to their careers.” The military is a testing ground for the commander in chief’s promises. If the military, the country’s most male-centric and conservative organization, cleans up its sexual discrimination practices and provides equal opportunity regardless of gender, the effect on society at large will be enormous.

Discrimination Against Women in the South Korean Military

Young-Ha Kim wrote in the New York Times: The Korea Air Force Academy recently decided that it would grant its highest academic award for graduating seniors, the presidential prize, not to the valedictorian but to the salutatorian. Traditionally the prize is given to the student with the highest grade-point average, but the administrators said they chose the runner-up this year because he had performed better than the valedictorian in nonacademic areas like physical fitness and leadership, and in military studies. But to many South Koreans, the real reason for the choice was obvious: The valedictorian was a woman and the salutatorian a man.

But as the number of women in the military has grown, discrimination against them has not eased. [Source: Young-Ha Kim, New York Times, March 5, 2014]

“An investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, released in November 2013, found that close to 12 percent of women in the military experienced sexual harassment, and that 71 percent of female soldiers were aware that their superiors preferred male subordinates to female. Thirty-four percent of the women who experienced sexual harassment said that, since they did not believe the military would ever change, they would just endure the discrimination.

“The problems faced by female soldiers are mirrored in the military academies. While these institutions have not completely ignored the issue of mistreatment of women, their approach has been misguided. Last May, after a second-year female student was raped by a fourth-year male student, the Korea Military Academy announced stricter enforcement of its “three prohibitions” — on marriage, smoking and drinking. (It also took disciplinary action against the participants.) Shortly after, the navy and army announced similar measures.

“In June, the Naval Academy published a “Female Students’ Guidebook for Relations with the Opposite Gender.” Women were strongly advised to apply only basic makeup, use neutral-colored nail polish and wear subtle shades of lipstick. Strongly scented perfumes were banned and undergarments should “not sully the student’s dignity,” the pamphlet added. While a ban on smoking and drinking may make sense in a military academy, the logic of forbidding marriage is confusing. Married cadets are much less likely to cause trouble, and the ban shows just how far out of touch the administrators are. But the Naval Academy’s booklet for women is patently offensive: It suggests that women who are sexually assaulted have only themselves to blame.

“In the end, the Air Force Academy reviewed its original decision over the presidential award and gave it to the female valedictorian. That was a welcome step in the right direction, but much more has to change. South Korea’s women are waiting.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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