SEOUL — "You just don't get it; you've never served."
Most South Korean women probably have heard this line. It speaks to a core gender divide here — between men, who serve two years’ mandatory military service called “gundae,” and women, who don’t.
Military service is required for most men between 18 and 35, and they often serve during college or as they launch their careers. It’s a formative experience, but only for half the population.
As the nuclear threat from North Korea looms larger than ever, South Koreans are soberly evaluating their country’s military readiness.
That may be why a recent anonymous petition requesting that President Moon Jae-in's administration expand the draft to women went viral, sparking debate over whether requiring women to serve would make the country more prepared — and more equal.
“We need to fight together, men and women,” said Kim Hee-jung, a 16-year-old student at Yale Girls’ High School in Seoul. “There are many problems with gender inequality, the expectation that men go to the military and women give birth. . . . We should be able to fight, throw grenades. If there’s a war, we can’t just stay home and live in fear.”
The presidential petition system was launched last month to mark Moon’s 100th day in office. Thousands of petitions have been filed, and most of them don’t break 1,000 signatures. The topics can get personal, from complaints about a neighborhood dispute to the performance of South Korea’s soccer team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
But the petition to draft women for the military garnered 70,000 signatures within three days, and by the time it reached its Sept. 14 deadline, 123,204 people had supported it. It ranks as the second-most popular petition to the Blue House, Korea’s executive mansion.
The petition reads more like a rant than a cogent policy proposal.
“Currently, our country is confronting North Korea, which is surrounded by large powers like China. So we inevitably have to keep the draft, yet it is only imposed on men,” it says.
"Feminists argue women have the same or even better abilities than men. . . . Shouldn't that mean women, like men, should serve the country and receive the same compensation and benefits from the government? . . . Of course, I do not see that this will happen immediately, but I believe the government must pursue this change as soon as possible."
Moon wants to reduce the length of mandatory service, so it’s unlikely he would make a policy change to extend the requirement to women. At a recent administration meeting, Moon noted the popularity of the petition and called it an “interesting issue.”
Still, the petition appears to resonate amid the growing nuclear threat from the North.
Oh So-hyun, a 22-year-old student at Sogang University, said women lack a basic understanding of the country’s military and defense system because the draft applies only to men. She wants to see it expanded to women, but said the training needs to be adjusted for the physical differences between men and women.
“Until now, Korean men have been trained to carry out military duties. Women, on the other hand, have very limited basic knowledge about military affairs and how to cope with wars,” Oh said. “It’s necessary for Korean women to learn about and carry out the duty of national defense.”
Women already have the option to serve in the South Korean military, and they make up about 6 percent of officers.
Claudia Ryu, 35, served in the South Korean navy for eight years. She studied international conflict analysis in graduate school and wanted firsthand knowledge about her country’s military.
Ryu said expanding the draft to women is crucial to achieving gender equality in South Korea. She added that women should be allowed to serve at the combat level, to make the military more fair.
“Because the mandatory service is only for men, men tend to look down on women in the society. They say, ‘You don’t understand how society operates because you have never served in the military,’ and that is the default line,” Ryu said.
“I never experienced that, because I say: ‘Hey, I was in the military for eight years.’ And they say, ‘Oh.’ They can never say those things to me, because they know they can’t just dismiss me like that. . . . We should be given the same opportunity, same rights and same obligations in society.”
Not everyone agrees. Some, noting that women already serve in the military, say they don’t see an urgent need to make it mandatory. Others wondered how much it would cost taxpayers to expand the draft and whether it would lead to more sexual harassment or discrimination in the military.
“It’s not that women can’t fight, or that it’s only up to them to raise children, but if every young person has to fight in a war, will our society only be left with older adults and children?” said Kim Hee-youn, 18, another student at the girls’ high school. “I wonder if women who are fit enough to fight in war should instead be tasked to protect children, rather than leaving them with the elderly.”
Kim Ji-hyun, a 24-year-old senior at Korea University, joined the service at 21 and was discharged last year. He opposes the idea of expanding the draft to women, saying it’s not a solution to underlying gender inequality in the country — from either the female or male perspective.
“Gender inequality in the society is profound,” he said, pointing to the gender pay gap in South Korea, which lags behind most countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“I served in the military for two years. At first, I felt like I was deprived of my precious two years in my twenties. But I don’t think we should be compensated by having women serve in the military,” he said. “We can’t achieve equality for both sides simply by that measure. It will only worsen the larger issue.”