Popular Netflix series sparks new debate over South Korea's military conscription

D.P. - short for Deserter Pursuit - follows military policemen assigned to capture deserters, shining a light on daily life for many conscripts. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A hit Netflix series is reigniting a debate in South Korea over the country's massive military, its history of abuse scandals, and the mandatory conscription that fills its ranks with young men.

D.P. - short for Deserter Pursuit - has been among the top Netflix shows in South Korea since it premiered at the end of August.

The series follows military policemen assigned to capture deserters, shining a light on daily life for many conscripts, including mental and physical abuse from other soldiers.

Director Han Jun-hee said he sought to tell a humanising story about how the system makes deserters both victims and criminals, as well as the toll it takes on those forced to do the hunting.

"D.P. is a story of tracing a deserter but, at the same time, it is a paradoxical story of looking for someone's unfortunate son, brother or lover," Mr Han told Reuters in an e-mail.

Asked about the popularity of the show, a Defence Ministry spokesman said that the military environment has changed and that the ministry has tried to stamp out abuse and harsh treatment.

Last week, the military announced that even before the series came out, it had planned to do away with the system of having rank-and-file soldiers track down comrades who are absent without official leave.

That change will go into effect in July 2022.

South Korea maintains an active duty military of 550,000, with 2.7 million troops in reserves, amid decades of tensions with North Korea.

All men must serve for up to 21 months, depending on the military branch.

South Korea's military criminal law punishes desertion by up to 10 years in prison.

The Defence Ministry says abuse and desertion among conscripts are down, largely because of a 2019 decision to allow enlisted soldiers to use cellphones in their barracks.

The ministry declined to confirm the exact number of deserters, but South Korean media reported that 55 cases were reported last year, down from 78 in 2019.

Military deaths by suicide also dropped from 27 to 15 in the same period.

Heated debate

The series landed as the country debates the future of conscription and the potential for abuse, particularly as young men facing dim economic prospects have complained of losing time to military service that they could have spent on studies or work.

In 2018, a Supreme Court ruling for the first time found that "conscientious objection" is a valid reason to forgo military service.

Parliament last year passed a Bill allowing K-Pop stars to postpone their military service to when they are 30.

The military has been rocked by multiple sexual abuse scandals this year, prompting lawmakers to pass a law that sex abuse and violent crime in the military will be handled by civilian courts.

Reaction to the series among former conscripts has been mixed, with some saying it mirrored their experiences, others saying its depictions of abuse are overblown, and some avoiding the show altogether to prevent traumatic memories from resurfacing.

"There is a scene in D.P. where they throw combat boots (at the soldier). I went through a lot of similar harassment," said Mr Ma Joon-bin, who described his time between 2013 and 2014 as the "dark ages".

"Now that I look back, I feel it was unfair. But back then, it was so common."

Mr Lee Jun-tae, 24, who served from 2017 to 2019, said he had never experienced or heard of any of his friends suffering abuse during their service.

"There was no harsh treatment during my time," he said.

Last week, the presidential favourite for the ruling party, Mr Lee Jae-myung, called the stories in the series a "barbaric history" of South Korea.

Mr Hong Joon-pyo, an opposition party candidate, has said he endured cruelty as a soldier and pledged to consider moving to voluntary military service.

Ending conscription will not solve all the problems if the broader military culture does not change as well, said pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik, who served as a military policeman.

"As long as there is military service, whether a mandatory or voluntary conscription system, problems are inevitable one way or another," Mr Kim said.

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