The relationship between North and South Korea was never all sunshine and daisies. No one would expect it to be – after all, how is any country supposed to have peaceful relations with a hostile, almost unresolved war in their shared histories?
Regardless, both countries tried, settling for a truce at the end of the Korean War. A truce implies that both sides carry a mutual wariness, but are not hostile; South Korea, however, views its northern neighbor as continually hostile, and because of that, the country has created mandatory conscription for all men. They are required to serve in the military for two years, their time termed as gundae. Most men serve between the ages of 18 and 35, either while they are in college or are trying to get into their careers.
Recently, North Korea has come to pose a larger threat in terms of invasions and firepower. Some worry that should the threat materialize, the current number of men in the South Korean army will not be enough to successfully subdue North Korean forces. They want to be able to insert another angle into the equation: women.
While women are allowed to serve in the Korean military, they are not yet automatically required to enlist for two years. Currently, about six percent of officers in the military are women. They had only been allowed into the military at the end of the Korean War, and even then, they merely held administrative positions instead of commandeering ones. Only in the 1990s, when South Korea’s military academies began accepting women, did their numbers begin to blossom.
The idea being proposed would require women serve two years in the South Korean military alongside men, and a petition to have the theory put into law has sprung up. Much like the White House, the Blue House (where the president of the South Korea resides) accepts online petitions and occasionally reviews them to pass them into laws.
The petition to include women in the mandatory enlistment has reached over 100,000 signatures. “Feminists argue women have the same or even better abilities than men. . . . Shouldn’t that mean women, like men, should serve the country and receive the same compensation and benefits from the government?” the petition reads.
If passed, the petition could bring a new light to the fight for equality between women and men. “We need to fight together, men and women,” said Kim Hee-jung, a high school student in Seoul. “We should be able to fight [or] throw grenades. If there’s a war, we can’t just stay home and live in fear.”
Enforcing conscription for both sexes could also lessen (or end) condescending attitudes about women in the military, which has had its own set of troubles. Though women are allowed to serve in every branch of the South Korean military, they are still barred from some Marine and commando units because of certain requirements. On base, they are warned to only wear basic clothes and makeup so that they do not provoke male soldiers.
Discrimination has gotten so bad that, in 2014, the Korean Air Force Academy granted its highest awards to the salutatorian of the class. The official statement is that it was because the salutatorian had higher grades in strength and agility than that of the valedictorian, but the glaring fact remained that the salutatorian was a man, while the valedictorian was a woman.
If women are to serve alongside men in the military, they will finally be able to prove their own worth to South Korean society.
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