South Korea’s mandatory military enlistment program is notoriously difficult to get out of. Every able-bodied man between the age of 18 to 35 is legally required to enlist. Understandably, many South Koreans consider military service a man’s rite of passage. The only men who are currently exempt are athletes who play for the World Cup team or who win medals at the Olympics.
The Exemption Plan
However, a new report on Wednesday from the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo says authorities are now considering an alternative way for men to serve their country.
If a man decides to have three or more children before 30, that man will stay exempt from mandatory conscription. The ruling conservative People Power party is toying with this new idea. Its a desperate attempt to boost the country’s dwindling birth rate.
After all, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered “bold and sure measures” to tackle the problem.
South Korea’s current population of 51 million people does not have enough youth to support its rapidly aging population in the years to come. In a trend continuing across developed countries worldwide, South Korea’s fertility rate has been on the decline since the 1970s.
The country has, in fact, just set a new record for the world’s lowest fertility rate, at 0.78. The OECD recommends a fertility rate that hovers around 2.1%. This is the average number of children a woman who lives to the end of her child-bearing age would need to give birth to. That way the country wpould “ensure a broadly stable population.”
A party official told Chosun.com that the military exemption plans have not yet been finalized. They were currently being “reviewed.”
The Public Pushes Back
Many people online have negatively responded to the proposal to spare young fathers of three or more from service. “Are you encouraging teenagers to give birth?” said commenters online. “Who would have three children to avoid going to the military?”
Associate professor, Jeffrey Robertson from Yonsei University in Seoul, says the idea is “laughable.” Talking to TIME magazine, the professor expressed that the government continues to ignore the unwanted costs young people associate with starting a family.
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South Korea’s young adults are increasingly avoiding having children due to a confluence of factors. These range from low-paying jobs to the rising cost of living and a growing trend away from marriage.
Robertson also warns that such a draft exemption policy could be short-sighted and dangerous.
“You’re setting up a situation where young mothers are going to potentially be pushed into having children to allow a male to avoid military service.”
Still, Cho Kyu-suk, a coordinator at the Seoul-based Centre for Military Human Rights in Korea, supported the proposal, saying it wasn’t “totally irrational.”
Conscription can certainly limit a couple’s ability to start a family. A military sergeant is paid a measly 676,100 Korean won (or just over $500) a month Thats far lower than the 2.64 million won (about $2,000) an average household needs to sustain itself monthly.
Other Factors to Consider to Raise Birth Rates
To address the nation’s economic concerns, the People Power party is also reportedly considering a series of child-rearing support subsidies to provide a monthly stipend of 1 million won per child until adulthood—a total of 216 million won ($169,000) per child over 18 years.
There is, however, no guarantee that these initiatives will succeed in convincing Koreans to have more children. Previous pro-natalist policies have thus far failed to turn the country’s demographic trajectory around. Likely, South Korea’s declining birth rate is more closely related to its national culture.
Traditional gender roles and overwork are specially to blame. Or so says Erin Hye-Won Kim, Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Seoul.
“We cannot ask people to have babies for the national economic growth or the country’s sustainability. We shouldn’t think of fertility as such [a] tool,” she says. “Instead, when the government tries to help people to have a happy life, I think [an] increase in fertility would follow naturally.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index, South Korea ranks 99th out of 146 analysed countries. President Yoon’s election last year capitalized on a growing anti-feminist movement, blaming feminist ideologies for the declining birth rate.
In a country where gender has already been characterized as the country’s “sharpest social fault line,” some fear that creating a direct benefit for men with an implicit cost for women can only deepen the divide.