To be sure, it isn’t just conscientious objectors who are facing difficulties. Many Korean draftees speak of the abuse that comes with the military’s deeply ingrained “barracks culture.” Bullying and sexual assault have led to suicides and shootings.
Cho Kyu-suk is a coordinator at the Seoul-based Center for Military Human Rights in Korea, a non-government organization offering counseling for those traumatized by their experience of the armed forces. He argues that an overhaul of South Korea’s military system is overdue.
“In order to better the alternative service, we also have to improve the active service environment,” says Cho.
Cho says that regular conscripts regard military service as a kind of punishment to be stoically borne—which is why they have little sympathy for objectors.
“Active military service is accepted as punitive and as a penalty and disadvantageous,” he points out. “[Conscripts] cannot be generous about those who do not get the punishment. They are eager to see everyone get punished equally. That’s their concept of fairness.”