(26) Yangban Evaded Military Service

By Yang Sung-jin

The prosecution wrapped up its month-long investigation into a massive conscription scandal masterminded by Warrant Officer Won Yong-su last Thursday. The probe led to the conviction of 117 of Won’s clients on bribery charges. Disappointingly, about 90 percent of the bribe-givers were rich and powerful, lending credence to the widespread rumor that only the have-nots shoulder the burden of completing the 26-month-long military service.

During the Choson Dynasty, corrupt practices surrounding the compulsory military service were just as bad as they are today. The primary reason, of course, was that it was a painful burden to serve as a soldier.

Anyone from 16 to 60 could be required to defend the nation by serving in the military and the government offered no payment to servicemen. Worse, draftees were required to prepare weapons and military attire at their own expense in order to avoid punishment.

In the Annals of the Choson Dynasty, a document dated in 1657 states that, “If a soldier’s military equipment is not well-kept or his attire is not clean, his supervisors may slap the soldier in question immediately. That is why some draftees sell their cows, horses, or even rice paddies to procure proper military equipment.”

Officially, even the yangban class was required to serve in the military. Units such as “kap-sa,” “pyolsi-wi,” “naekum-wi” were set up for these members of the upper class. In a stratified society where inborn privilege was regarded highly, this kind of special treatment for those yangban willing to pick up the sword was more than understandable. So, these selected yangbans, though their number as a proportion of the whole army was negligible, were given the titles of public officials in the military.

The universal law of the earlier Choson period, which dictated that all citizens had to fulfill their military duty, had exceptions. Notably, the Confucian principles of filial piety and chastity became a yardstick for deciding legitimate military exemptions.

For instance, those who had disabled parents were excluded from military service so that they could fulfill their filial duties, a norm vigorously championed throughout the Choson Dynasty. And if parents were older than 70, one of their sons eligible for conscription was exempted so that he could take care of them.

Confucian Ticket to Exemption

Cho Tok-rin was exempted from military service in 1398. His mother, widowed at 19, refused to re-marry and remained single for some 60 years. The government honored her devotion by saving her son from military duty.

Buddhist monks were also entitled to exemption from military service. In 1482, official Lee Koh reported to the king: “Commoners are excluded from military duty only when they reach the age of 60. But monk candidates have to work for government construction projects only 20 days to get a Buddhist monk’s license, which gives them lifetime exemptions. This is very unfair.”

Interestingly, hawk hunters were criticized as draft dodgers in 1420. This group of people, called “sipachi,” always closely followed the king on a hawk hunt. Therefore, they were freed not only from the necessity of serving in the military, but also from other miscellaneous duties. Later, those who wanted to evade the draft increasingly gained the status of special hawk hunters. As a result, some sipachi lacked the basic skills to deal effectively with hawks.

After being briefed on this corrupt practice, King Sejong ordered each province to more strictly enforce the qualifications of the sipachi sent to the palace and to issue licenses in order to eliminate this practice. The Annals say that the king’s move uncovered hundreds of fake sipachi.

A riskier way of escaping military service compared with the hawk hunting subterfuge was to take on the job of capturing tigers. In 1680, the city of Onsong’s governor Yun yi filed an appeal to the king: “The Yukchin area has long suffered from tiger attacks. The reason seems to lie with the absence of a law awarding those who capture tigers. Commoners who seize tigers should be exempted from their military duty and yangban literati who achieve the same feat should be appointed as local military chieftains.”

The military conscription system began to come apart at the seams despite government-initiated efforts to maintain it. Particularly in the second half of the Choson Dynasty, military conscription was not so much about “honorable” national defense as it was concerned with “shameful” national taxation.

The underlying reason for this was that the yangban class began to refuse outright to complete their military duties. Originally, only incumbent government officials, Sunkyunkwan students and retired high-ranking government officials were exempt. But as the order of the class society disintegrated, some wealthy commoners bought yangban identifications in order to evade military service and the number of self-styled yangban claiming the right to exemption skyrocketed.

Oh-So-Honorable Yangban

Even in the earlier period, there was an exemption-buying practice called “tae-rip,” which simply means paying somebody else to do the job. It started with the wealthy merchants who did not want their military duties to interfere with their businesses. Later, high-ranking officials in charge of recruitment saw a potential cash cow in the practice and openly asked for a portion of the money as a condition to keep mum about the illegal act.

As a result, a group of brokers specializing in providing “substitute soldiers” sprang up, causing the corrupt practice to mushroom further. On the other hand, in remote local areas, military exemptions in return for money in the name of a “military tax” were widespread, thus shaking up the conscription system.

Eventually, the government used the compulsory military system as a way to raise tax revenues, not as a means to maintain its national defense. Of course, the yangban class was safely exempted from this tax, as well.

In 1824, minister Sim Sang-kyu filed a long appeal to the king concerning the deplorable draft-related corruption: “Most of the so-called wealthy and clever are dodging their military duties. People are citing all sorts of excuses related to their employment at government office or transport stations or their enrollment in private schools, as long as they can escape from conscription. Only the poorest are chosen for service, and they also have to bear the burden of the military tax.”

The result of the government’s change in priorities was devastating. Government officials levied the military tax upon powerless commoners in order to add to their own wealth, thus deepening the corruption.

In 1797, “Pibyongsa” (the Border Defense Council) reported to the king: “These days, people are increasingly making efforts to avoid military duty and tax. Some falsify their ages, and some of them forge documents so that they are classified as dead.”

Even the dead were counted for the taxation, however. Moreover, children were also classified as eligible for the military duty as the officials tried to squeeze more money out of the commoners.
With regard to the military tax, if one failed to pay his due, other family members had to pay instead. If there was no one left in the family, relatives or neighbors had to bear the burden, which often generated a large-scale migration of people in search of a safer place.

While the commoners suffered from both the obligation to fulfill their military duty and heavy taxation, the yangban class fervently refused to share the burden.

It was only in 1871 that the yangban was officially required by law to pay the military tax along with the commoners, a belated fence-mending gesture by the government.

One other belated fence-mending gesture occurred last Monday, when the Military Manpower Administration (MMA) proposed a new law which would award draftees and punish draft dodgers. Yes, it is the very MMA in which Warrant Officer Won Yong-su served while brokering draft exemptions for the rich and powerful over the past 10 years.