New draftees at Nonsan training center wear full gear as they receive training in January this year. The meager pay for the able-bodied Korean men who serve the country in a compulsory military service is coming under renewed attention as President Lee Myung-bak’s call for a “fair society” gains resonance. / Korea Times file
By Lee Tae-hoon
One of the most touted phrases among Koreans in the past six months has been a “fair society,” a catchphrase that President Lee Myung-bak came up with as he marked the second half of his five-year tenure last year.
Unfortunately the slogan carries little credibility with the nation’s compulsory military service from which President Lee himself as well as Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, ruling party leader Ahn Sang-soo and a host of other prominent figures were exempted.
“Korea’s draft program is unfair as it unilaterally and unconditionally demands healthy young males to give up their studies or career for two years, putting them at a disadvantage in competing with their rivals across the world,” an enlistee said asking for anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the press.
Korea has emerged as the world’s seventh largest exporter and 14th largest economy, yet the average monthly wage of those enlisted lingers below 100,000 won ($81.3), or roughly one tenth of the nation’s minimum wage.
The government even froze the meager wage of conscripts between 2008 and 2010, during which prices of basic goods that soldiers frequently purchase, such as frozen foods and snacks, have nearly doubled.
President Lee has reportedly rejected a presidential committee’s proposal to drastically raise the wages of conscripts, which currently accounts for 0.2 percent of the nation’s budget.
Many women’s groups and those exempt from duty also remain adamantly opposed to granting preferential treatment to those who sacrifice 21 months or more of their prime to protect the nation.
Low wages of conscripts, without doubt, reduce the budgetary costs of the military, but the question remains unanswered over whether it is ethical to pay so little for their solemn duty?
How much draftees earn?
It’s safe to say that enlisted soldiers here earn several times less compared to those in countries of a similar or bigger economic size than Korea.
As of 2010, the monthly wage of a private second class was 73,500 won in Korea, whereas that of a sergeant, a rank that a recruit can reach after 18 months of service, was only 97,500 won.
In other words, what Korean conscripts make a day is below the country’s minimum hourly wage of 4,320 won.
In Germany, where men are also obliged to serve in the military, the conscripts receive on average 666 euro ($911) a month during their six-month mandatory military service, according to a 2010 report from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF).
The report also shows that, if German soldiers stay in longer than six months, they are paid more than double the earlier pay.
Some argue that differences in the two countries’ economic size are attributed to the large discrepancy, but figures show they are wrong.
Germany’s annual state budget for 2011 is 460.8 trillion won, only 1.5 times higher than that of Korea. Both countries have allocated slightly more than 10 percent of their state budget for defense.
In Germany, soldiers leaving the military after six months of service receive an additional 460.8 euros and those retiring the military after 23 months of duty earn an extra 766.40 euros.
In stark contrast Korean soldiers completing nearly two years’ of duty in 2011 will receive only around 16,000 won in retirement benefit, which might not enough to cover the fare back home.
This is because the military only managed to secure 4.8 billion won in its budget for some 300,000 conscripts to be discharged this year.
The MOGEF also found that in Taiwan, which also runs a draft, the bare minimum wage of a corporal, excluding other financial benefits, was around 405,000 won.
Both Germany and Taiwan have announced plans to abolish conscription and switch to a volunteer military service.
Side effects of underpayment
Surveys show the majority of conscripts suffer from financial difficulties.
According to a 2009 National Assembly survey of 7,200 conscripts, 41.9 percent of the respondents answered that they had to depend on their parents due to low wages. On average, conscripts received 58,000 won a month from their family.
“What I earn is certainly not enough to cover books that I need to purchase, buy birthday gifts for parents or friends and engage in any leisure activity with my girlfriend during leave,” a corporal said on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t understand why I have to beg my parents to wire money while working for the country day and night no matter how tough the job is.”
Legally speaking monetary compensation is not obligatory, but experts claim that the government should regard the financial hardship of draftees as a social inequality that needs to be taken seriously.
The government is not mandated to offer monetary rewards or other incentives for participation because the Constitution stipulates that military service is a fundamental duty of the citizens.
The number of conscripts stands at around 635,000, more than 98 percent of the nation’s troops.
Some 90 percent of Korean men are eligible to assume active military duty, while women are exempted from the “sacred” service.
A 2007 poll of 2,333 draftees by the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses revealed that 81 percent of them had run into financial difficulties due to their “abnormally low pay.”
Should draftees get more money?
Many Koreans are deeply sympathetic about the financial predicament that conscripts face and agree on the need to provide greater compensation to reduce inequality arising from the compulsory duty.
A survey of 1,000 adults by Hyundai Research Institute in September 2010 showed that 77.3 percent supported the idea of offering additional compensation for all retired conscripts.
Therefore it is important to find out how much tax payers would shoulder the burden if the government decides to hike the wages of conscripts?
The MOGEF report shows if the government pays 400,000 won a month the total wages of conscripts will amount to roughly 3 trillion won a year.
This translates into roughly 9.55 percent of the 2011 defense budget or 1 percent of the total state budget.
Similarly, if the government doubles that amount to 800,000 won a month, wages of conscripts will account for 19.1 percent of defense budget or some 2 percent of its total budget.
A survey of 1,500 by Gallup Korea in December 2009 found that 61.8 percent thought that the government should introduce further financial compensation for draftees.
Meanwhile, 87.1 percent of men and 78.7 percent of women in the Gallop poll also replied that they believe Korea should revive the law that granted preferential points to retired draftees in the public service examination.
The Constitutional Court, however, ruled against the preferential treatment in 1999, saying it infringes on rights to have equal employment opportunities and further marginalizes weaker members of society, namely women and the handicapped.
Some argue that draftees have long been victims to the government’s mistreatment and exploitation.
They point out that conscription promotes the government to misuse enlisted men as their labor costs are calculated to be much cheaper than they actually are.