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Published: 18:03, September 14, 2021 | Updated: 18:16, September 14, 2021
Netflix series sparks debate over S. Korea's military conscription
By Reuters
Published:18:03, September 14, 2021 Updated:18:16, September 14, 2021 By Reuters

South Korean military conscripts wear face masks to protect themselves against a wave of fine dust that has hit the Korean Peninsula, during their entrance ceremony at the army training centre in Nonsan on Jan 14, 2019. (JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)

SEOUL  - 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 police assigned to capture deserters, shining a light on daily life for many conscripts, including mental and physical abuse from other soldiers.

D.P. (Deserter Pursuit) 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.

Han Jun-hee, Director of Netflix series D.P. (Deserter Pursuit)

Director Han Jun-hee said he sought to tell a humanizing 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," Han told Reuters in an email.

Asked about the popularity of the show, a defense 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 AWOL comrades. 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. 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 defense 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

The Defense 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.

ALSO READ: Death of S. Korea's 1st transgender soldier spurs calls for change

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.

This picture taken on Oct 19, 2020 shows a South Korean military conscript and his family members hugging in farewell as conscripts arrive to join the military service at the army training center in Nonsan. (JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)

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.

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

"There is a scene in D.P. where they throw combat boots (at the soldier). I went through a lot of similar harassments," said 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."

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 favorite for the ruling party, Lee Jae-myung, called the stories in the series a "barbaric history" of South Korea. Hong Joon-pyo, an opposition party candidate, has said he endured cruelty as a soldier and pledged to consider moving to voluntary military service.

READ MORE: After sex abuse cases, S. Korea looks to overhaul military justice

Ending conscription won't solve all the problems if broader military culture doesn't change as well, said pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik, who served as a D.P.

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

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