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[Herald Interview] Young president hopeful pledges volunteer military

Park says women receiving military training will not cause gender conflict but rather solve it

Rep. Park Yong-jin of Democratic Party of Korea (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Rep. Park Yong-jin of Democratic Party of Korea (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)


Ruling Democratic Party’s Rep. Park Yong-jin, 50, the first politician who announced a run for president in next year’s election, has vowed that he would reform the military conscription system.

Park says it is time to transition to a voluntary military, with compulsory service restricted to basic training for men and women.

“The debate on volunteer military system in our society has been quite long. But we are not going in that direction yet. We still conscript young people at a bargain price,” Park told The Korea Herald.

“Even if they are injured or disabled in the Army, the nation does not take responsibility for their lives. They serve the state but they don’t get any pension benefit while serving or incentives after being discharged.”

In Korea, all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to perform compulsory military service, from 18 months to 21 months depending on the branch. Women are exempt but can join the military voluntarily.

One of the main concerns of those opposing a voluntary military system is that this may lead to a decline in defense capabilities. Park suggests basic military training for four to six weeks, for both men and women, as a solution for the concern.

“Some question whether six weeks are enough. However, ask anyone who went to the Army. They spend most of their time cleaning or maintaining their own lives. They are not involved in critical military training,” the lawmaker said.

And he doesn’t think obligating women to take basic training will cause gender conflict.

“Rather, I think we can resolve the social conflicts caused by only men having to go to the Army. Our constitution states that all citizens have a duty of national defense.”

He said female military obligations were possible, citing Norway, Sweden and Israel as countries that conscript women, and the existence of female soldiers in Korea who serve in a wide range of roles including combat and special operations.

As for controversy surrounding K-pop boy band BTS over whether they should be exempted for their huge economic contribution, Park said if mandatory conscription continues, it should be strict in practice.

“The reason this debate (over BTS) began in the first place is because (men) think they are required to spend their time meaninglessly in the Army at the age they can work hardest and are brightest in life,” he said.

The debate should lead to shifting into a voluntary military instead of whether BTS should be exempted or not, the candidate said.

Another main pledge he proposed is to create a sovereign fund to ensure quality of life for senior citizens.

Currently, South Korea’s elderly poverty is the highest among OECD countries and the National Pension Service’s fund is expected to be depleted from 2057, according to the government. Such uncertainties have driven young people to real estate, stock and cryptocurrency investments, he said.

“However, real estate is too expensive to afford and stocks and cryptocurrencies are too risky. Basically, they don’t have plans to prepare for their later years.”

He suggested the creation of a sovereign fund by combining the funds from NPS, sovereign wealth fund Korea Investment Corporation and 67 other pension funds.

“When combined, this can be about 1,500 trillion won ($1,343 billion). With the economy of scale, we can invest more in overseas assets, like Singapore’s lucrative Temasek Holdings. Because the scale is huge, if you lose on 2 or 3 out of 10 (investments), you’ll make up for it the other 6 or 7,” he said.

Park also suggested that people can make additional investments by linking their individual savings accounts to the sovereign fund, he said.

“This way, the depletion of the NPS can be delayed and the public can stably secure retirement savings without having to take risks by investing in stocks or cryptocurrencies.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)

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