Image description: Members of the South Korean army marching in formation
Last month, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) fundamental Forced Labour Convention 29 of 1932 went into effect in the Republic of Korea, internationally known as South Korea, a year after the country completed the ratification process. However, South Korea has not yet ratified the 1957 Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention 105, which significantly does not contain several exceptions that existed in the previous Convention 29. Convention 105 is the last of the fundamental labour conventions that South Korea has not yet ratified and is unlikely to do so, despite recent promises to invest time in ‘building social consensus and thorough review [of the] domestic legal system’.
There are numerous reasons why ratifying the Convention is controversial in South Korea. In a forthcoming article in The European Journal of International Law, I discuss two of these: South Korea’s migrant labour system which provides few rights to negotiate a change of job and makes migrants vulnerable to forced labour and other forms of exploitation, and its legislation imposing prison labour for expressing political opinions sympathetic to North Korea (nominally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). This post addresses a third issue, specifically South Korea’s military service. Convention 105 appears to designate military service as forced labour. Article 2.2.a of Convention 29 determines that ‘any work or service exacted in virtue of compulsory military service laws for work of a purely military character’ is not forced or compulsory labour, but Convention 105 does not contain such a provision.
From a security perspective, conscription is non-negotiable in South Korea. The country has remained at war with its northern neighbour since the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. Accordingly, the Military Service Act and the Presidential Enforcement Decrees oblige all able-bodied South Korean men between 18 and (typically) 28 years old to serve in the military, contributing 18 months for the Army, 20 months for the Navy, and 22 months for the Air Force.
South Korea’s practice of conscription is ostensibly a matter of survival. Since Joe Biden assumed the Presidential office in the United States, North Korea has accelerated its development of ballistic missiles, while recent satellite images show that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site – which collapsed in 2017 – is being restored. When Kim Jong-un, the leader of the North, congratulated the outgoing President of the South, Moon Jae-in, on his achievements in bringing the two Koreas together last month, South Korean journalists did not take Kim on his word.
If anything, conscription is likely to be expanded in the future. There have been reports that conscription may be introduced for women. While the current system ascribes to women stereotyped roles based on the assumption that they need to be protected, mandatory service for women begs the question of whether the army is sufficiently adapted to the specific needs of female conscripts, or whether they would be forced into yet another environment designed by men and for men. While men have been serving in the army, women have been disproportionally represented in factory jobs, spending their pre-married lives as “industrial soldiers”.
Even the members of South Korea’s most successful musical export product, K-Pop band BTS, will be required to undertake military service. Thus far, BTS only benefited from regulation allowing them to delay their service. When the oldest member of BTS, Kim Seok-jin, turned 28, Article 60.2.3 of the Military Service Act was amended to allow outstanding popular artists who have enhanced national prestige to delay their military service. The exceptional nature of this amendment is apparent from the text of Article 114 of the Presidential Enforcement Decree, which determines that only artists that have received a decoration in the Order of Cultural Merit may delay their service by up to two years. In 2018 BTS was the first – and thus far only – K-Pop act to receive such a commendation.
As tension builds around the world and on the Korean peninsula, military ‘service’ will continue to divide South Korea. Given the realities of geopolitics, conscription is not an outmoded concept, even though its abolition is a fundamental labour right.