|Kang Seo-yeon, center at the front, a chief petty officer of the Republic of Korea Navy, and her colleagues smile at a Navy base on Deokjeok Island, Incheon, as they look at a photo of Kang's four-year old son. Courtesy of Republic of Korea Navy|
By Jung Da-min
When it comes to promoting gender equality in military barracks, some might think it is about giving preferential treatment to female personnel.
Kang Seo-yeon, a chief petty officer of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy, realized this after an article spotlighting her service received comments to such effect online.
"After all, we are all service members whether we are male or female," Kang said. "Female service members in the military can often be seen as a special case when they should rather be seen as competent, just like their male colleagues."
For Navy service personnel, serving in a remote area or on a ship on a maritime mission helps their careers. While her husband is also a Navy chief petty officer serving on the ROKS Chungbuk (FFG-816) in the Second Fleet based at Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Kang chose to serve at a naval base on Deokjeok Island off the western coast of Incheon this year ― her 11th in the Navy. Before enlisting in the Navy she served four years in the Army as she always wanted to be in the military after graduating from high school.
Kang, now raising her four-year-old son on Deokjeok Island, said she can balance her work and childcare through the military's childcare support policies.
In South Korea, all able-bodied men must serve 18 to 22 months in the military but no mandatory military service is required of women. They can join the military as a non-commissioned, or commissioned officer if they graduate from military academies or pass national qualification tests to join the military.
Media focus on female personnel has often been on them taking certain positions for the first time that had not been "allowed" before, largely due to the perception that women would find it hard to serve on such missions.
One recent case was Capt. Jung Hee-kyung of the ROK Army, who has become the first female head of a 39th Infantry Division security unit tasked with guarding a coastal border area in Goseong, Gangwon Province, according to the ROK Army in early September.
Jung's case, in particular, received attention for showcasing the Ministry of National Defense's decision August 2018 to scrap restrictions on assigning women to command positions at border combat units, as part of a wider effort to expand women's role in the military.
|Capt. Jung Hee-kyung of the ROK Army, the first female chief of a 39th Infantry Division coastal border unit, inspects a fence in Goseong, Gangwon Province. The ROK Army announced her appointment Sept. 8. ROK Army via Yonhap|
Some other "special" cases of female military personnel include Sergeant First Class Seong Yu-jin of the ROK Army who became the first woman to serve in a Security Battalion at the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom last December; and Lt. Cmdr. Yang Ki-jin of the ROK Navy who with about 1,580 flying hours became the first woman to head the naval aviation unit on the 30th deployment of the Cheonghae unit that departed for the Gulf of Aden last month.
|Lt. Cmdr. Yang Ki-jin of the Republic of Korea Navy who with about 1,580 flying hours became the first woman to head a naval aviation unit deployed with the 30th Cheonghae unit mission that departed for the Gulf of Aden last month, according to the ROK Navy. ROK Navy|
Such reports ironically reveal the military's long history of excluding women, but also certainly show its efforts toward inclusion.
Sept. 6 marked the 69th anniversary of the ROK Army Women's Army Corps that commemorates the entry of 491 women into the Korean military after the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Seven decades on, the number of female military members now stands at around 12,495 as of this year, a six-fold increase from 2,085 in 1999, according to government data. The number of female personnel accounts for about 6.7 percent of the total. The defense ministry is planning to increase the ratio to 8.8 percent by 2022, as part of its overall Defense Reform 2.0 plan.
Fostering gender equality in the military requires many tasks beyond building facilities for female personnel, including fostering the perception of gender equality among male members, especially the leadership.
The ministry launched an advisory panel on gender equality September 2018, which consists of 15 members including nine civilian experts and six military officers and is led by the defense vice minister.
The ministry is also running many open forums in each branch of the military for leaders there, aiming to change the perceptions of women in the military from the top.
Female policy experts say the number of high-ranking female military officers should also be increased, as the current 1.3 percent ranked as lieutenant colonel or higher is "too low," compared to the 20.7 percent among civil servants outside the military ranked Grade 5 or higher, equivalent to the military rankings.
The percentage of female officers ranked as colonel or higher stood at 0.55 percent, also lower than 14.8 percent of other equivalent civil servants ranked Grade 4 or higher.