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How Bad is Korean Military Service?

Written by Everett Bledsoe / Fact checked by Brain Bartell

how bad is korean military service

Commonly seen as a rite of passage for South Korean men, mandatory military service is as integral to the country’s fabric of life as it is controversial.

How bad is Korean military service? Although it’s an opportunity for personal growth and making new friends, conscription also has potential problems, such as bullying, hazing, and even sexual assaults.

We’ll discuss the basics surrounding the country’s conscription, including the people required to enlist, criteria for exemptions, and criticisms regarding the system.

What Is Korean Military Service Like?


Since 1957, military service has been mandatory for Korean men.

All healthy males aged 18 to 35 must serve in the military for a period of 18 to 21 months, depending on what division they enlist in (18 months for the army and marines, and 20 or 21 months for the navy and air force, respectively).

  • As you may have guessed, South Korea military service length has been the subject of criticism.

Many men feel that conscription affects their economic prospects, especially as it halts their educational and career development compared to their female counterparts.

  • The salary of those serving in the military is also inadequate to cover monthly household expenditures, as it ranges from 600,000 Won for a private to one million Won for a sergeant. To put it into perspective, a family spends over 2,000,000 Won a month on average.


  • To make matters worse, bad aspects like hazing and bullying in the Korean military can cause depression, and some conscripts have turned to smoking and drinking as coping mechanisms.

As an example, Nicole Park—a user on Quora—shared that her boyfriend “actually left 4 months early because of problems within the ranks (staff abuse of power). He still gets nightmares of the punishments he had to endure, it causes a lot of drinking problems to cope.”

In the most severe cases, harassment and sexual assaults have led to suicides and shootings. In a 2021 survey, nearly 60% of respondents said they had endured cruel treatment during their Korean conscription, highlighting the need for legal interventions and reforms.

  • Leaving aside these dangerous circumstances, another controversy regarding Korean military service rules revolves around their exemption criteria.


Classical musicians, athletes, and artists may be granted military service exemption for promoting South Korea’s image, such as by winning top prizes in international competitions.

However, some have called for the abolishment of this regulation, arguing that it is unfair, while others advocate for the expansion of the rule to include other professions.

  • Another issue that fuels criticism towards South Korea’s military rules is the flagrant draft dodging committed by wealthy and privileged citizens.

By exploiting the laws on conscription exemptions and (in some cases) their own political connections, musicians, professional athletes, and government officials have faked illnesses, disabilities, and even obtained foreign citizenship to avoid serving in the army.

Law flouting aside, though, there’s also the matter of conscientious objectors to think about, especially if you’re religious and living in Korea.

Prior to 2019, people opposed to enlistment for ethical reasons were imprisoned. As of now, they have to complete 36 months of non-military service, which is much longer than the standard conscription duration.

Reportedly, they also have to live in prison while working there and could only leave the facility on certain days.


How bad is Korean military service? Undoubtedly, there are shortcomings to this system that merit criticism, such as the low salary of conscripts and the problematic “barracks culture” that borders on cruelty.

For young adults, spending two years in the armed forces and putting their education and career on hold is, understandably, a bleak prospect, especially when they have no other choices.

But if none of these negatives apply to your situation, serving in the army can be a positive experience. You’ll meet people from all walks of life, learn the importance of discipline and teamwork, and develop the strength and maturity to deal with hardships.

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