South Korea debates military service exemptions

1 / 3
South Korean soldiers check new military conscripts during an induction ceremony at the army training center in Nonsan. (AFP)
2 / 3
South Korean soldiers hold the national flag and their unit flag next to new military conscripts during an induction ceremony at the army training center in Nonsan. (AFP)
3 / 3
South Korean soldiers hold the national flag and their unit flag next to new military conscripts during an induction ceremony at the army training center in Nonsan. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019
0

South Korea debates military service exemptions

  • The bulk of South Korea’s 599,000-strong military are conscripts, with all able-bodied men obliged to serve for 21 months
  • In an opinion poll most respondents — 52.4 percent — wanted exemptions reduced or terminated entirely

NONSAN, South Korea: Despite generating almost $4 billion a year for the South Korean economy, the seven floppy-haired members of K-pop boy band BTS will still have to perform nearly two years of mind-numbing military service.
But the likes of Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min and award-winning pianist Cho Seong-jin are entitled to exemptions, prompting calls for an overhaul of the controversial pass system.
The bulk of South Korea’s 599,000-strong military — who face off against Pyongyang’s 1.28 million Korean People’s Army — are conscripts, with all able-bodied men obliged to serve for 21 months.
They are forbidden access to mobile phones, have to fulfill endless hours of tedious sentry duties — often in remote locations — and are largely confined to their bases, opening the possibility of exploitation and abuse by more senior soldiers.
“I think three out of 10 conscripted men on average struggle very much in every day military life, mainly because it couldn’t be more different from their civilian life,” said Kang Sung-min, a 25-year-old college student, who performed his service in the military police.
But not everyone is required to submit to the ordeal. Olympic medalists — of any color — and gold-winners at the quadrennial Asian Games are automatically exempted, along with artists who come first or second in 27 listed global contests, such as Cho, who won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition.
The highest-profile recent beneficiary is Spurs’ Son, who broke down in tears of joy when the Taeguk Warriors defeated Japan 2-1 after extra time in September’s Asian Games football final to spare him a potentially career-threatening stint in the military.
Son was among no fewer than 42 athletes who secured dispensations by winning gold in Indonesia — a tally widely resented by young Korean men obliged to interrupt their studies or delay their careers to do their duty.
As controversy mounted the government launched a review of the exemption system which Jung Sung-deuk, deputy spokesperson for the Military Manpower Administration, said was focused on “reducing its scope.”
In an opinion poll most respondents — 52.4 percent — wanted exemptions reduced or terminated entirely.
But at the same time some are suggesting the system — which aims to reward those who “raise the national profile” — grants athletes excessive privileges for one-off achievements, and should be extended to cover pop stars, given the cultural and economic benefits they generate.
BTS topped the US Billboard album charts twice in 2018 with “Love Yourself: Tear” and “Love Yourself: Answer,” becoming the country’s best-known and most valuable musical export, complete with a legion of adoring female fans known as the “BTS Army.”
In December the Hyundai Research Institute in Seoul estimated the boy band were worth more than $3.6 billion a year to the South Korean economy, and the reason that one in every 13 foreign tourists visited the country in 2017.
South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said the current exemption policy gives certain specific groups unjustified advantages.
“If opera singers are eligible for exemption, then pop singers should also be on the principle of fairness,” said Ha, who is 50 but has long maintained that K-pop is more significant than classical music in promoting Korean culture worldwide.
The current rapprochement on the peninsula raises the prospect that the South may one day no longer need a conscript army.
But as things stand, hundreds of K-pop fans often gather to wish their heroes luck as they join the military — and entertainment careers can be destroyed if musicians are seen as trying to evade service.
Popular 1990s K-pop singer Steve Yoo became a US citizen in 2002, automatically forfeiting his South Korean nationality and with it his military obligations.
Public sentiment was outraged, and two weeks later the justice ministry barred Yoo from entering the country — a ban that remains in place to this day.
Similar views remain commonplace among South Koreans, who expect that every man will do his duty.
At the Nonsan military training center south of Seoul, hundreds of young men report for conscription every Monday, their mothers clasping their newly shaved heads in tearful farewells.
New soldier Choi Doo-san said it made “absolutely no sense” to even consider granting pop stars exemptions.
“Every man here contributes to the defense of the country by doing military service,” said the 20-year-old, who has taken a break from his studies in electrical engineering studies at Howon University to enlist.
“They can always make a comeback afterwards.”


Mali sacks senior army officers, dissolves militia after massacre

Colonel Gabriel Soubrier (L) from the Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region, speaks with Anderamboukane prefect Moussa Diallo (C) and Menaka region governor Daouda Maiga (R) at the military base of Malian Army forces (Fama) in Anderamboukane, Menaka region, on March 22, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 16 min 36 sec ago
0

Mali sacks senior army officers, dissolves militia after massacre

  • At least 136 men, women and children were killed in the attack, according to a “provisional toll,” public television ORTM said late Sunday

BAMAKO: Mali’s government on Sunday announced the sacking of senior military officers and the dissolution of an ethnic militia, a day after the massacre of more than 130 Fulani villagers, including women and children.
Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said new military chiefs would be named, and that the Dan Nan Ambassagou association, composed of Dogon hunters, had been dissolved.
The dissolution of the militia was to send a clear message, Maiga told journalists: “The protection of the population will remain the monopoly of the state.”
Survivors of Saturday’s attack said ethnic Dogon hunters carried out the deadly raid in Ogossagou, a village in central Mali inhabited by the Fulani community.
While local attacks are fueled by accusations of Fulani herders grazing cattle on Dogon land and disputes over access to land and water, the area is also troubled by jihadist influence.
Maiga did not name the senior officers sacked, but defense ministry sources told AFP they were the Armed Forces Chief of General Staff M’Bemba Moussa Keita, and chiefs of the army and the air force.
The prime minister’s announcement came hours after an emergency meeting called by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in response to Saturday’s massacre.
At least 136 men, women and children were killed in the attack, according to a “provisional toll,” public television ORTM said late Sunday.
The television showed images of burned huts and livestock and shell casings in the village.
The victims were shot or hacked to death with machetes, a security source told AFP.
A government delegation led by Justice Minister Tiena Coulibaly went to the site of the massacre Sunday.
They were sent by the president to “tell the people of Ogossagou that what happened here is unacceptable and that it will not go unpunished,” Coulibaly said.

The UN Children’s Fund said “Malian children are paying a heavy price for the intensification of violence.”
“Growing insecurity since 2017 has led to an increase in murders, mutilations and the recruitment of children,” UNICEF said.
For its part, the European Union called for “immediate steps (including) the disarmament and dismantling of all militias” in Mali.
Researcher Baba Dakono of the Bamako-based Institute for Security Studies told AFP the attack was “unprecedented” but “predictable” because of a weak state presence in the region.
It was the deadliest attack since the end of the 2013 French-led military intervention that drove back jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.

The massacre took place as a delegation from the UN Security Council visited the Sahel region to assess the jihadist threat.
“The secretary general is shocked and outraged” by the bloodshed, Antonio Guterres’s spokesman said in a statement late Saturday.
The UN chief called on the Malian authorities “to swiftly investigate it and bring the perpetrators to justice,” the statement added.
Guterres’s spokesman said the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, provided air support to deter further attacks and assisted with the evacuation of the injured.
The attack was launched at dawn on Saturday in the village near the border with Burkina Faso, in a district that has seen frequent inter-communal violence.
Jihadist fighters have also emerged as a threat in central Mali in the past four years. A group led by radical Islamist preacher Amadou Koufa has recruited mainly from the Fulani community.
Since then, there have been repeated clashes between the Fulani and Dogon and last year the violence claimed some 500 civilian lives, according to UN figures.
In January, Dogon hunters were blamed for the killing of 37 people in another Fulani village, Koulogon, in the same region.
The Fulani have repeatedly called for more protection from the authorities. The government in Bamako has denied their accusations that it turns a blind eye to — or even encourages — Dogon attacks on the Fulani.
Once considered a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa, Mali in recent years has been dogged by a coup, civil war and Islamist terrorism.
Extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of the desert north in early 2012, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
In June 2015, Mali’s government signed a peace agreement with some armed groups, but the jihadists remain active, and large tracts of the country remain lawless,
The violence persists despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, a strong French military contingent and the creation of a five-nation military force in the region.