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[Weekender] Military at crossroads on female soldiers

It was almost a no-brainer for Park Na-hyun, a 26-year-old female student, to join the military.

Having grown up in a family with a “disciplinary” father who served in the military for 20 years, military uniform was the norm. The scholarship provided by the military school was also a merit hard to pass up.

However, eight months into her first year at military school, she decided to quit. As one of the two exclusive female cadets out of 30 cadets in her squad, she said she experienced implicit disadvantages during training and field operations.

“We were often excluded from field operations, which I think was because we were women,” said Park.

Korea’s military does not have a long history with female soldiers.

Cadets attend an entrance ceremony at the Korea Military Academy in February, 2016. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald
Cadets attend an entrance ceremony at the Korea Military Academy in February, 2016. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald

In 1997, Korea’s Air Force Academy allowed its first female cadet, while the Military Academy and the Naval Academy did so in 1998 and 1999.

By regulation, just 10 percent of the total number of freshmen at military academy are allowed to be filled by women. This leads to fiercer competition to become one of the select few female candidates who makes it, as well as to be commissioned after four years of training.

On top of such aggressive competition, a 28-year-old military officer surnamed Chung, who only has three more months left to be commissioned, said he often saw female colleagues struggle to get used to the military environment.

“Due to the much smaller number of female soldiers, it is harder (for female soldiers) to become accustomed to the environment here,” said Chung.

According to the Ministry of National Defense evaluation report in 2013, the ministry rated the task of increasing female manpower and establishing infrastructure for female soldiers as “urgent.”

“The evaluation report especially pointed out the lack of welfare (for female soldiers) such as nursing facilities and counseling programs to deter sexual harassment or discrimination,” said an analyst at the Center for Freedom of Information and Transparent Society.

In 2013, a female soldier who was 7 months pregnant died at a unit near the front line, and a lack of medical infrastructure and welfare programs in her unit was blamed for her death.

The Defense Ministry’s regulation states, as of 2010, pregnant female soldiers can be exempted from training, and they can also ask for up to 90 days of leave.

But it is actually not easy for female soldiers to do so, due to the possiblility they will face disadvantages in their roles.

According to a female military insider who wished to be anonymous, “Female cadets are most likely to be dispatched to supporting roles when they are commissioned, such as the propaganda or education office, mainly due to their (physical) weakness when they are out in the field.”

But analysts also say that although limited roles were given to female soldiers in the past, the current military environment is going through a period of transition, with an effort to expand the quota of female soldiers and the roles they fulfill each year.

“The number of female soldiers hit 10,000 last year, which implies change in the roles of female soldiers and that their welfare programs will slowly but steadily improve and expand,” said professor Park Sung-beom of military science at Seokyung University.

In order to support volunteers for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Ewha Womans University decided to implement ROTC programs starting this year, following Sookmyung Women’s University and Sungshin Women’s University which begun ROTC programs in 2010 and 2011, he added.

Women serving in the field said while they encounter prejudice both within and outside the military, it pushes them to work harder to prove themselves.

A 35-year-old major serving in an aviation battalion said, “Because it was not an easy choice to become a female soldier, many of us live with a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility. All of us applied with a sense of duty and are working hard. It is hoped that people from outside would also view us simply as soldiers, not just out of curiosity for being women.”

By Kim Da-sol (