Conscience tells us that active military service to defend the nation is more than a duty ―it is the privilege of healthy Korean men. So, it is dismaying to hear people talk about the “privilege” of being exempted from military service for various reasons. Further puzzling is the fact that this privilege is officially recognized for persons who “raised the national prestige” with outstanding results in international sports and arts competitions.
The idea behind this peculiar system practiced for decades is that winning a gold medal in the world taekwondo championship or top place in an international piano concours is a greater contribution to the nation than standing guard at a DMZ outpost for two years. Details about the weighing of these merits are provided by a presidential decree under the Military Service Law.
In the area of music, the category of international competitions to offer the service exemption “privilege” has been a matter of controversy. In 2011, the authorities revised provisions in the decree to reduce the number of international events from as many as 130, covering almost all kinds of instruments of classical music to just 30, including three locally sponsored ones.
Violin is included in 17 of the newly selected 30 competitions, piano in 15, vocal music in nine, cello, flute and clarinet in five each but classic guitar in none of them. Harp, harpsichord, saxophone and double bass players have a chance for the exemption. The association of classic guitarists raised objections for the authorities’ “unjust discrimination” against their music.
Whatever the complaints, the current induction system has it that a young male musician who won first or second place in any of the 30 supposedly prestigious international competitions may return home after four weeks of basic military training. He is regarded as having finished military service if he remains in the musical occupation for the next three years.
We remember there was time when the whole nation was enthralled upon the news that a boxer or a pianist had won a championship in an international competition. Korea struggled to secure a place in the international community and the nation has since won prominence in many different areas of the global community, in economy as well as in arts and sports. Public appreciation for the world’s top title may still be great, but no longer strong enough to allow military service exemption.
And there is the fundamental question of “privilege” about military duty. A review of the whole system is called for to reestablish the sanctity of military service and correct the distorted concept of privilege.