Enlistment Explained: How Exactly Does South Korea’s Conscription System Work?

And when will your bias be due for service?

South Korea’s mandatory military service is confusing; K-Pop fans would agree. While having existed since 1957, the details of Korea’s conscription system have been changing constantly—and, inevitably, affecting the active male idols and their fans across the four generations of K-Pop.

How does enlistment work, exactly? What services are there, and how long do the services last? What happens after enlisting? And after getting discharged? Who gets to postpone their services, and who gets to skip? How?

Here are all the answers as of December 2022.

Why Does The Compulsory Military Service Exist?

Joint Security Area between the North and South Korea. | Unikorea21 via Shutterstock

South Korea’s compulsory military service officially began in 1951 during the Korean War. Established to respond to threats from its nuclear-armed counterpart of North Korea, the South Korean Armed Forces consist of three branches: Army, Navy, and Air Force. (The Korean Augmentation To the United States Army—also known as KATUSA—falls as a branch under the Army and the Republic of Korea Marine Corps—known as ROKMC—falls as a branch under the Navy.)

Out of the three, the Republic of Korea Army, or ROKA, is the only branch with the right to draft.

Who Has To Complete This Service?

| speak.com

The conscription in South Korea is managed by the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which was created back in 1948.

Article three of the “Military Service Act” explains that all men from the “Republic of Korea” should participate in the mandatory military service that was set out by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, along with the military act.

Although males are required to complete service, women are also able to complete active or reserve service. However, this has to be done through volunteering, and no other form of mandatory service can be made.

How Does Enlistment Work?

The MMA takes the registration information of all 17-year-old male citizens. This is done to identify which ones will become available for service the following year. After the information is collected, it is then sorted and sent to the local military manpower offices around the country.

According to the law, on January 1, of the year a South Korean man turns 18 years old, he will be enlisted as a “first citizen service.” This means that although he is not yet required to serve, he is still liable for the duty.

Then, when they turn 19 (or sometimes 20), they are then needed to undergo an “Impairment and Disability Evaluation” to see whether the individual is suitable for service. For this evaluation, there are different grades that impact their service.

Korean men getting the Impairment & Disability Evaluation. | SBS News

Those in grades one, two, and three are able to be enlisted for active duty service, and the activities following their service are based on their qualifications, education, and age.

The next two grades are those who are not able to be enlisted for active duty due to ill health. Grade four is for those who can enter for supplemental or second citizen service, and those in grade five are enlisted as second citizen service.

Grade 6 is for those who are exempt from military service due to disease or illness, which is common for those with disabilities. The final grade is seven, and they are unable to be graded, and it could be due to disease or some kind of mental or physical illness.

Once deemed “able-bodied” for active service from the Impairment & Disability Evaluation, the men will receive call-up letters (draft cards).

Draft letter | Insight via SBS Drama

Most Korean men enlist between the international age of 19 to 21 (Korean counting age of 21 to 22), though they can start enlisting voluntarily from the international age of 18. 

Actor Park Seo Joon in Reserve Service uniform. | @bn_sj2013/Twitter

One person who is best known for completing his service early is actor Park Seo Joon. Unlike many stars, Park Seo Joon completed his service early and actually enlisted in 2008, when he was 20 years old international age. It meant that he was released in 2010 and made his entertainment debut in 2011, appearing in a music video before shooting to fame in K-Dramas.

Korean men can postpone until they’re 28, international age, but they must enlist by December 31 of the year they turn 28.

BTS’s Jin after he shaved his head ahead of his enlistment | Weverse

Some men who are in the entertainment profession can postpone enlistment until the international age of 30—following the conscription amendment that was passed in 2020 with BTS in mind.

These men would need recommendations from the minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism as well as the Military Manpower Administration’s approval—often granted for international accomplishments contributing to Hallyu.

Prior to the announcement of his enlistment in 2022, the oldest member of BTS, Jin, had already postponed it until his 28th birthday in 2020. In that same year, the amendment was passed, which allowed Jin to postpone again until December 31 of the year he turned 30 (2022).

| @jin/Instagram

Although it would’ve meant that he would have had to enlist between his birthday on December 4 and the end of the year, he chose to cancel the postponement request on November 4. It also shut down any talk that was going on amongst the government and netizens about BTS finding alternate methods of enlisting. It was a huge discussion as many politicians worried about the impact on the country if BTS enlisted.

How Long Does Enlistment Last?

South Korean Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force in 2022 photo shoot. | @ROK_MND/Twitter

Active ROKA service lasts 18 months. Both the KATUSA and the Marine Corps serve for 18 months as well. The Navy and the Air Force services last 20 and 21 months, respectively. Supplemental services, like “public service work” personnel, last 21 months.

Yet, there are other options if you plead conscientious objection of military service for reasons such as religion. One of those is being expected to work in the country’s prison system.

Correctional officers | SBS

During this time, they will be rotated between jobs, including the likes of working in the laundry facilities, kitchen, and also administrative jobs. Unlike military services, this alternative service lasts 36 months, which is twice as long as normal conscripts. Also, despite having a few weeks off, their lives are based in the prisons, and their movements are regulated.

Even when the mandatory enlistment finishes, it isn’t the end of their time with the army. Soldiers who have finished their service in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces are automatically transferred to the Reserve Forces. Here, they must serve four years in the Mobilization Reserve and then another four years as a Homeland Reservist.

Do The Enlisted Get Paid?

| orbi.com

Yes, the soldiers receive monthly pay! Second class privates get ₩510,000 KRW (about $387 USD), while first class privates get ₩552,000 KRW (about $419 USD). Corporals make ₩610,000 KRW (about $463 USD), and sergeants make ₩676,000 KRW (about $513 USD).

Thanks to the constant movement in the Korean government to improve the treatment of those enlisted, the pay rate has increased by 88% since 2017.

What Happens If Enlistment Is Intentionally Evaded?

Although it is the law for men to enlist, it isn’t uncommon for Koreans to try and intentionally avoid being enlisted in different ways. Yet, with national pride, it is normally frowned upon and can have a huge impact on those trying to evade the service.

One of the most known cases is from famous singer Yoo Seung Jun (also referred to as Steve Yoo by Koreans), who was one of the most popular solo artists in Korea in the late 90s.

Yoo Seung Joon at the Impairment & Disability Evaluation in 2001. | YTN

In 2002, he became the first celebrity to dodge military enlistment after giving up his Korean citizenship and acquiring an American one. It removed his obligation to enlist in the military, but it also resulted in his banishment from the country as he had previously promised to enlist on multiple platforms.

Source: Military Manpower Administration

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