Earlier this week, the news that Korean pop group BTS’s Jin will soon be enlisted in the South Korean military left millions of fans sad. While the exact date of enlistment has not been confirmed, it is being speculated as in the middle of December, according to Korean media organisations.
Jin is one of the many high-profile South Korean celebrities who have had to take a break from their lucrative careers to join the military. Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men are expected to serve 18 to 21 months in the military. While there are provisions in the law to exempt certain individuals or allow them to fulfil shorter service times, these are contentious at best, and even popular celebrities often cannot avail of them. Jin, for instance, was allowed exemption till the age of 30, instead of 28 as is the upper limit of enlistment.
He will still be expected to serve a minimum of 18 months, getting deployed after five weeks of basic training. This is despite the fact that BTS is arguably the biggest global pop sensation of our time. On the other hand, while footballer Son Heung-Min was able to reduce his service time to three weeks, this exemption was given only after he won the gold medal at the Asian Games, something that was very much not guaranteed. If South Korea had not won the Asian Games gold, football would have lost one of its best players in his prime for at least three years.
Korea isn’t alone, though few countries presently require mandatory military service. We take a brief look into the history of the concept, across the world.
Mandatory or involuntary military service has been around since ancient times with slaves being used for combat in almost all major civilisations. Further, many ancient kingdoms did not boast of a standing army: they were dependent on peasant soldiers forced to pick up arms during times of conflict.
In mediaeval Europe, serfs were expected to perform what was known as Corvée labour. This was primarily found in feudal societies, a type of annual tax payable as labour by the serf to the monarch, vassal, overlord, or lord of the manor. In addition to being used to complete royal projects, maintain roads and other public facilities, and provide labour to maintain the feudal estate, it was also used to conscript men into the military.
In fact, modern volunteer armies are a fairly recent phenomenon, arising in post-Enlightenment Europe. Before the 18th and 19th Centuries, the most common volunteers in combat would be mercenaries or people paid to fight in a particular conflict. While mercenaries have existed for a long time, the organisation and hierarchical command typical of modern armed forces were lacking.
Today, involuntary military service is relatively rare. According to Statista data journalist Niall Mcarthy, “fewer than 30 countries in the world still require whole age cohorts to complete military service.” While provisions for conscription or drafts exist in many other countries including major military powers like the United States, Russia and China, they are either meant only for times of emergency or are not enforced.
Some of the countries which enforce mandatory military to whole age cohorts are as follows. Here, citizens are expected to spend a certain period of time in service after reaching the age of eligibility. With the exception of North Korea and Israel, mandatory service is generally restricted to men only.
South and North Korea
Both neighbours have strictly-enforced laws on conscription. North Korea mandates eight years of service for men and five years for women starting at age 17. South Korea mandates anywhere between 18-24 months of service, depending on the branch one joins, for all men between the ages of 18-30 years.
As the two Koreas have been in a perpetual state of war since their partition, the governments are in a constant state of alert.
Israel, along with North Korea, is the only state to have mandatory military service for both men and women. Depending on the branch of service and rank, citizens are expected to be in the military for a duration of 24-48 months (nine years for pilots) after which they are put in the reserves till the age of 41-51 years for men and 24 for women.
Due to Israel’s conflict-ridden history with all its neighbours and the relatively small native population, it feels the need to provide military training and experience to all its citizens while maintaining a sizable standing force at all times.
Every male citizen must mandatorily undertake National Service upon turning 18, for a period of 24 months. National Service includes service to either the armed forces, civil defence, or police forces. At the end of service, all personnel are put in the reserves till the age of 40 (50 for officers).
The conscription programme was enforced in Singapore after the British decided to pull out forces from it in the 1960s. For the small nation, national service acts as a force multiplier as well as a means to foster national unity and consciousness.
Angola has mandatory military service for a period of at least 24 months for all men aged 18-45 years. Registration is mandatory at 18. Angola’s conscription laws came up during the long-drawn civil war it witnessed between 1975 and 2007. Conscription was one of the main ways in which the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) fulfilled its staffing requirements during the civil war. The FAPLA was the predecessor of Angola’s official armed forces.
This South American nation has had mandatory conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 24 for a period of 18 months. The provision for mandatory service has been in place since the creation of the republic, with an option to also serve in some civilian services (like the penitentiary service).
However, there is an increasingly strong movement towards ending mandatory conscription. In October 2022, the Colombian senate passed a law that ended mandatory conscription. But there are many more steps in the process before this law translates to reality.
Vietnam has mandatory service for all men between the age of 18 and 25 for a period of 24-36 months. Dodgers can face criminal charges with harsh punishments. The country instituted mandatory service in 1975 on the back of a decades-long civil war which had fractured Vietnamese society. Mandatory military service cultivates loyalty to the nation alongside combat readiness for a cohort of citizens who can also serve in disaster relief and rescue.
Finland mandates 6-12 months of military service or border duty for all men when they turn 18. After service, they are put in the reserves till the age of 60. The Finnish constitution enshrines the obligation of every man to participate in national defence. For a country with a tiny population, conscription is a cost-effective way to raise a large reserve.
The Swiss have 18 weeks of mandatory military training between ages 18 and 30 for all men. After training, they are liable to be recalled at most six times for a period of 19 days each over the next 10 years. Citizens can also opt for the alternative of civilian service. In 2013, a referendum to abolish mandatory service failed with a whopping 73% of the population voting against it.