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Military's ‘glass ceiling’ eliminated in South Korea

Debates on ‘gender-neutral’ fitness tests ensue

Seoul on Tuesday lifted the ban on women serving in the Special Forces, opening up new positions to women in the military, as part of the new government measures to promote gender equality.

Until now, female officers were not eligible to apply for so-called “dangerous” positions in the military -- including those in Special Forces, some positions in coastal defense and fortification.

Critics have argued that those rules affect women’s chances of promotion, branding it a de facto “glass ceiling” against women in the military. 

“We believe that the positions that women were not eligible to apply for in the military were the ones that were known to be extremely physically demanding and requiring very rigorous training,” said an official from the Gender Equality Ministry.

“But now the positions are open to both men and women, and we believe this will give more opportunities and motivation for women officers.”
The Defense Ministry, along with the Gender Equality Ministry, is coming up with a new, gender-neutral guideline that states job responsibilities for commanders and high-ranking officers. The new guideline would apply to both men and women in the military.

Under the current law, all Korean able-bodied men are required to perform about two years of compulsory military service. Women are not required to perform the same duty, but may voluntarily enlist.

The state-run Korean National Police University is also coming up with a new, gender-neutral physical test for all new students.

The new measures have triggered debates on whether women have enough physical strength to take frontline positions -- as well as whether or not it is sexist to even bring up this question.

“I’m sure there are women who are just as strong as men,” said a Korean man in his late 20s, who only wanted to be identified with his surname Lee. He has served his military duty.

“But I’m not really sure about this idea of ‘gender neutral’ physical test. It might be too easy for some male soldiers who have been in intense training for years, whereas I personally believe there aren’t many women who have undergone the same experience. How are they going to ensure fairness in the testing while making sure that they not lowering the standard of the armed forces or the police force?”

In the US, the Pentagon lifted ban on female officers serving in combat positions in 2013. In February this year, US Army Secretary Mark Esper said the army will propose new physical fitness test that will be both “gender and age neutral” because “the enemy does not specify who they are going to shoot and not shoot, combat is combat.”

A Gender Equality Ministry official said the government was aware of the concerns regarding the gender neutral fitness test.

“We have researchers who are looking into the issue,” the official told The Korea Herald. “Regardless of the debates surrounding the physical test, we believe all positions in the military and police should be open to both men and women.”

By Claire Lee (

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Korea Herald daum