This article was originally published on 1st June 2017 in Korea Exposé. Reproduced with kind permission.
When young college students in Seoul went out to march through the streets calling for Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in a long streak of demonstrations that started last October, it wasn’t difficult to bump into an acquaintance blocking you — dressed in a navy military drab armed with combat gear. These policemen were some of the most visible — and the most silent — presences, patrolling the massive candlelight vigils that eventually contributed to Park’s ouster from office.
Who were all these policemen? No, not professional police officers, but young men in their college years, serving their 21 months of compulsory military service.
On Monday, Moon Jae-in vowed to dismantle the conscripted police force by 2023, the Korean National Police Agency confirmed with Korea Exposé. Around 26,000 conscripted policemen will be replaced by professional officers, which is expected to boost the job market, and add credibility to Moon’s campaign pledge to create 810,000 jobs before his presidency ends.
“I think it’s a good move, both efficiency and security-wise,” said Jeon U-yeol, a former conscripted policeman who finished his duty in Seoul last year. “In a broad sense, I believe there are more benefits [to this dismantling], in that the [police] unit will acquire a higher sense of duty, and receive more systematic training — which the conscripted policemen don’t often get.”
Jeon added, “I do feel sad that young men will have to suffer more elsewhere, because conscripted policemen had been deemed a relatively easy way to serve your [military] duty.”
Thanks to the division on the Korean peninsula, military service is mandatory for all able-bodied South Korean men older than 18. The police force is typically seen as one of the more desirable positions for young men to be assigned to, due to its frequent weekly leaves. (This was probably not as relevant during Park Geun-hye’s impeachment crisis, when tens of thousands of police were assigned on the weekends to watch over the massive civil demonstrations against the then-president.)
The conscripted police force has also been on a hotbed of social debate in South Korea over its alleged unconstitutionality; according to the Military Human Rights Center for Korea(MHRCK), it is a breach of law to use soldiers in their military duty as combat policemen.
“They are not just being mobilized to maintain public order, but are forced to suppress political demonstrations in the frontlines. This is all clearly out of the legal boundary,” said MHRCK in its press release in 2015. The organization argues that it is not part of the conscripted policemen’s original duty — “to assist in conducting public security affairs,” as the law vaguely states — to be mobilized in political demonstrations, where regardless of individual political will, young men are forced to confront and endure violent protests instead of formally trained police officers.
The history of the police force has had a turbulent past. The conscripted police force (euigyeong) was first introduced in 1982, as a part of the ‘combat police force (jeongyeong),’ which was established in 1967 to ferret out North Korean spies and maintain public order. Combat police is crucial to remember, because its absence today dicates the changing — and apparently unconstitutional — role of today’s conscripted police.
Under the Park Chung-hee(1963-1979), Chun Doo-hwan(1980-1988) and Roh Tae-woo(1988-1993) regimes, combat policemen were mobilized to brutally crack down on civilian democratization protests. During Chun’s presidency, students protesting against his dictatorship were forcefully sent to military service, who were then deployed to the combat police unit. There was even a name for this, called an afforestation campaign — to ‘greenwash’ the ‘Red bandits.’
This idea was actually pretty smart — it was assumed that the protesters would go easier on their friends in the police.
Baek Hyun-seok, a former combat policeman who served in the military under Roh, was one of the hundreds (some estimate thousands) caught during these vigils. Baek was forcefully drafted to serve as a policeman during his military service. “About 200 of us, out of the 400 who joined the army together… were sent to become a [combat] policeman. I was dispatched to the forefront down in Gwangju.”
In 2013, the combat police force was finally dismantled amid criticisms and lack of manpower. In its absence, conscripted policemen increasingly took charge of what the combat policemen used to do — to set up barricades and confront protesters out in the streets.
Former president Roh Moo-hyun initiated attempts to phase out the conscripted police force by 2012, but his plans fizzled out during the succeeding conservative administration under Lee Myung-bak.
Newly-elect Moon Jae-in, following the pursuit of his mentor/liberal predecessor Roh, is carrying on with the unfulfilled goal. Starting in 2018, the force will be reduced by 20 percent each year, and completely replaced with professional soldiers within five years.