By Lee Tae-hoon, Kim Young-jin
North Korean defectors can serve in the military here if they want to, despite the widespread notion that they are banned from the two-year mandatory tour for South Korean men aged 18 or above.
According to the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), North Korean defectors are treated as equally as their South Korean counterparts in the recruitment process.
“The only difference is that North Korean defectors do not have to perform military service upon filing a request for an exemption,” MMA spokesman Kwak Yu-suk said.
Kwak said 458 North Korean defectors had the right to serve in the Armed Forces but refused to do so in 2011.
He noted that 1,765 defectors exercised their option for exemption between January 2008 and June 2012.
“It is totally baseless to claim that North Korean defectors are automatically exempt from military duty,” Kwak said. “North Korean defectors can also be assigned to a border unit.”
He declined, however, to disclose whether there are any North Koreans actually serving in the military.
Heo Bong-il, a 20-year-old North Korean defector living in Seoul, found himself in a dilemma last year when he received a letter that asked him to take a physical examination for the military draft.
“I was quite surprised because I did not expect to receive such a notification just a year after settling in the South,” he said. He defected via China with his mother at age 7 and finally set foot on South Korea when he was 18.
Heo said he applied for a draft exemption with the help of a counselor, a social worker hired by the government who advised him to dedicate his time to preparing for the qualification examination for college entrance.
Another 20 year-old North Korean defector living with Heo at a shelter provided by Durihana, a Seoul-based Christian organization, also confirmed that North Koreans do not experience discrimination with regard to enlistment.
“Young North Korean defectors, including myself, are aware that we are eligible to serve in the military,” he said.
“I was told by counselors that I’d better not to join the military as it was optional and the time saved would allow me to catch up with my South Korean counterparts.”
The defector, who came to the South in 2009, said he sought exemption last year to continue his university studies.
Media outlets have thus far wrongfully alleged that young men from the North who receive citizenship are prohibited from fulfilling military service.
A local daily went as far as to wrongfully claim the government was seeking to amend the Military Service Act (MSA) so that young North Korean defectors can also join the military.
A professor, who wrote a paper based on an interview with nine defectors, even recently published a paper, claiming the government should consider revising the law to allow them to serve in the military.
MMA officials say that there has been a misunderstanding because journalists and so-called North Korea experts did not carefully read the MSA which stipulates that a “person who has immigrated from north of the Military Demarcation Line” may be exempted “upon his request.”
The Ministry of Unification said more than 5,000 North Korean males between the ages of 10 and 29 have defected to the South since 2007.
병역면제 신청을 병무청에 내는 탈북자가 매년 수백 여명에 달하는 것이 드러났다.
현행 병역법에 의하면 이북지역에서 이주해온 경우에도 병역 면제원을 제출하지 않으면 신체검사를 받고 병역을 이행해야 하기 때문이다.
병역법 제64조에서는 “제1국민역으로서 군사분계선 이북지역에서 이주하여 온 사람은 원할 경우 징병검사를 하지 아니하고 병역을 면제할 수 있다”라고 규정하고 있다.
병무청 곽유석 부대변인도 탈북자들이 군대를 갈 수 없다는 것은 전혀 근거 없는 사실이라고 주장한다.
곽 부대변인에 따르면 병무청이 지난 2008년부터 올해 6월까지 탈북자들로부터 접수 받은 병역면제 신청 건수가 무려 1765건 이른다.
08년에는 419명, 09년에는 327명, 10년에는 325명 이었던 병역면제 신청자가 2011년에는 458명까지 늘었다. 올해 6월 30일 현재까지는 총 236명의 탈북자들이 면제 신청하기도 했다.
7살에 탈북을 했던 허봉일씨(20세)도 지난해 징병검사 통지서를 받았고 한다. 그는 군대에 갈 것도 생각해 보았지만 중국에서 2009년까지 있다 한국에 온지 얼마 안되고 내년에 고졸 검정고시를 응시하려 준비하고 있어 일단 면제원을 제출했다고 한다.
허씨와 함께 두리하나선교회의 도움을 받아 학업을 지속하고 있는 대다수 탈북자 청년들도 징병검사 통지서를 받았다며 탈북자라 해서 무조건 군대를 가서도 안되고, 갈 수도 없다고 주장하는 것은 근거가 없다 말했다.
한국국방연구원(KIDA)은 최근 정책연구 자료집인 '국방정책연구'(여름호)에 동아대학교 강동완 전임강사(박사)의 '북한 이탈주민의 병역면제 정책에 대한 인식과 대안'이란 제목의 논문을 게재해 많은 언론 매체들이 오보를 하게 만든 적이 있다.
이 보고서는 현행 병역법이 탈북자의 입대를 막고 있지만, 정작 탈북 청년들은 군 복무를 희망하고 있다는 조사 결과가 나왔다고 주장해 탈북자의 입영이 법적으로 가로막혀 있다는 오해를 불러 일으켰다.