To serve or not, that’s the rub
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.