Women make strides in ROK military, but challenges remain

Women make strides in ROK military, but challenges remain

Felix Kim

More women are answering the call of duty in the Republic of Korea (ROK) military as opportunities increase and women slowly progress into leadership roles.

A declining national youth population coupled with more opportunities for women in the military have raised the number of female troops to 10,000. As of 2016, 6,915 women served in the Army, 1,654 in the Navy and Marines, and 1,694 in the Air Force of the Republic of Korea ,  reported Yonhap, the news agency of the South Korean government. Two women serve as brigadier generals, 823 as field officers, 3,924 as company officers, 24 as warrant officers and 5,490 as petty officers.

“The role of women Soldiers will become more and more important,” said retired Army Col. Kim Hwa-sook, chief advisor to the Defense Security Forum of the ruling Minjoo Party. “We will need more female Soldiers in the future,” she said, “as the total number of conscripted Soldiers will decrease due to the nation’s low birthrate. In fact, female Soldiers are more motivated than males because they all voluntarily join the military, while most male Soldiers are conscripted.”

Kim described how much has changed since the first women’s branch was established in the Army 67 years ago. Those first female Soldiers were not supplied with proper weapons but were simply expected to assist male Soldiers, she said.

“In the late 1980s,” Kim said, “the military started to open other branches to women, such as the infantry, and they were given various tasks and missions just like their male counterparts. Today, women Soldiers have advanced to almost every branch in the Army, Navy and Air Force.”

Women are held to the same standards as men, Kim said. Competition is intense among women seeking to become noncommissioned officers. At the elite Korean Military Academy, the competition is even stiffer, but that hasn’t stopped several women from graduating at the pinnacle of their classes in recent years, beating out top-performing males.

Despite their impressive performance and growing numbers, challenges remain.

“Sadly, there has never been a female division commander,” Kim said. “Most key posts have been dominated by male Soldiers. Even if they are promoted to brigadier general, their term is usually limited to only one year and they are forced to retire, so that they cannot move further up. This is very discouraging.”

Kim also spoke of discrimination against women Soldiers and cases of sexual harassment. In 2013, a female Korean Army captain committed suicide, leaving a note claiming that her commander had repeatedly sexually assaulted her, Human Rights Monitor South Korea reported.

Such misconduct is drawing attention.

The Military Human Rights Center for Korea recently demanded that the Ministry of National Defense allow female Soldiers to be promoted based on their ability. The human rights group also said the ministry should set up a system to tackle discriminatory practices in the military.

“What’s most important is to increase the total number and the proportion of female Soldiers up to over 10 percent, from current 5 percent,” Kim said. “More chances and opportunities will be opened to female Soldiers in the near future. Then, I expect that we will have a female division commander in five to 10 years.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.