South Korea defense budget improves conscripts’ living conditions

South Korea defense budget improves conscripts’ living conditions

Felix Kim

South Korea’s conscripted Soldiers can expect better dormitories and improved food and counseling services under a recently approved 2022 defense budget. The new budget reflects an attention to Soldiers’ well-being that stands in stark contrast with the country’s adversaries to the north, where conscripts face malnutrition, filthy living quarters and the threat of sexual abuse, according to reports from defectors.

The U.S. $46.98 billion South Korean military budget is a 3.4% increase over the previous year and includes U.S. $14 billion for “defense capability improvement,” including a new light aircraft carrier, a satellite system, helicopters and other assets, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said in a December 6, 2021, news release.

Meanwhile, U.S. $2.77 million was designated for improvements to dormitories and catering facilities at the Army Training Center (ATC), which houses conscripts. An additional U.S. $2.2 million will bring civilian cooks to the ATC. The budget for counseling services will increase by U.S. $1.09 million.

Specific to counseling, the new budget aims to assist victims of sexual violence in the military by increasing the number of sexual grievance counselors, Seoul’s Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper reported December 20, 2021.

While South Korea confronts the issue of sexual violence in the military, North Korea seems to be institutionalizing it. Lee So Yeon, a North Korean military musician who defected in 2008, said female soldiers in her home country must provide sexual services to members of the ruling Politburo. “They [female soldiers] go to the central Politburo party’s events and have to sleep with the people there, even if they don’t want it,” she said in a June 2018 story in Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Despite leading the world in proportion of military spending to national gross domestic product (GDP), North Korea seems to be funding the nuclear ambitions of its leader, Kim Jong Un, rather than bettering the lives of its soldiers.

North Korea’s military spending averaged U.S. $3.6 billion a year from 2007 to 2017, accounting for 13.4% to 23.3% of the country’s GDP, according to a 2019 United States State Department report.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s soldiers face unspeakable living conditions. “The mattress we sleep on, it’s made of the rice hull,” Lee So Yeon said in a November 2017 story by the BBC. “So, all the body odor seeps into the mattress.”

North Korea’s male conscripts aren’t faring well, either. Doctors in South Korea discovered an “enormous number” of parasitic worms inside a man who defected from North Korea in November 2017, Reuters reported.

The defector made a desperate dash at the Demilitarized Zone and was shot five times by his former comrades. Lee Cook-jong, the defector’s lead surgeon in South Korea, showed photos of an 11-inch-long worm found in the man’s digestive tract. “In my over 20-year-long career as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a textbook,” Lee said.

In contrast, South Korea is not only addressing living conditions of conscripts but is funding the improvements by reducing the military’s energy bill, the MND news release added. (Pictured: Republic of Korea conscript Soldiers train at the Army Training Center in South Korea.)

“While reflecting the essential requirements for military force operation such as logistics, facilities, and education and training, we focus on innovatively improving the quality of meals, creating a productive and healthy barracks life, smart defense innovation to lead the future battlefield, active support for those who fulfill their military service obligations, and upgrading the national defense workforce structure,” an MND spokesman said.

Controversy surrounding conditions at South Korea’s ATC began when a cellphone image of food served to a conscript Soldier during a COVID-19 quarantine circulated on social media in late February 2021, according to Seoul’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. The meal was so unappealing that it sparked an outcry from Soldiers’ parents. The complaints were compounded by other parents about a lack of proper hygiene for quarantined conscripts.

An initial investigation by MND into the origin of the image was halted, the newspaper reported, and Deputy Defense Minister Park Jae-min said in a subsequent appearance on national television that he saw “a positive aspect of this problem to be solved quickly rather than being covered up or hidden like in the past.”

Complaints about barracks life among Republic of Korea conscripts are nothing new, Dr. Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the Rand Corp., told FORUM. “So, it’s a case of the Defense Ministry recognizing it’s got to do something about that, especially a president [Moon Jae-in] who is progressive and very much interested in trying to have social issues resolved.”

For the first time in decades, the nation’s defense budget saw a reduction — albeit a small one — in research and procurement, Bennett added, while the portion assigned to such areas as the health and well-being of Soldiers has increased.

“That’s a really strong statement on the priorities of this administration, which is really anxious to try to make some improvements,” he said.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.