By Yang Sung-jin
In the largest ever conscription scandal in Korea, a military investigation revealed last month that Warrant Officer Won Yong-su took 1.6 billion won in return for arranging military service exemptions and other draft-related favors. Unsurprisingly, most of Won’s clients — he had a secret document listing over 400 of them — turned out to be rich and powerful.
They ranged from incumbent generals to politicians to wealthy businessmen.
This is not completely unexpected, as history shows again and again that it is the members of the upper crust who tend to nimbly and unabashedly avoid military service, while ordinary citizens shoulder the heavy burden of protecting the nation.
The Choson Dynasty was no exception. The conscription system back then was a little different than today’s: all the citizens from the ages of 16 to 60, if called on duty, were required to either go to the frontier army bases or pay the expenses for another to do the job instead. They also had to serve for 2-3 months at a time roughly every five years, and their duty ended only when they reached the age of 60.
Very few yangban literati (members of the high class) answered their conscription notices in the 500-year-long Choson period.
Even in the early period of the dynasty, Choson policymakers knew that the draft was a hotbed of bribes and corruption. In 1420, the Ministry of Rites asked the king for the strict enforcement of the law: “Those who arrange military exemptions at will in return for bribes from the wealthy should be severely punished. And those who avoid military service through influence-peddling should be closely investigated without exception.”
But such a laudable policy in theory hardly worked in practice. The underlying problem was that the yangban class was quite good at dredging up all sorts of excuses when it came to their compulsory military service.
Worse, the yangban class even rejected to military taxation, which was designed to provide for the needs of active soldiers and so the common people were forced to bear the burden once again.
In 1750, an official named Lee Chong-song called on King Yongjo to drop a plan to impose a tax on the yangban class, who hardly ever opted for the actual military service. Lee said, “Our nation is poor, and the yangban are especially poor. Since the yangban cannot become a lower class, they cannot engage in trade or manual labor. Moreover, now that farming is inappropriate for their class, they cannot do that, either. Even though the lower class should be pitied for being saddled with the tax and military service, they can at least get by through manual labor. In contrast, the yangban is unable to make a penny for themselves. That is why the taxation cannot and should not be implemented.”
Shameless Sense of Privilege
Also, the deep-rooted sense of privilege tempted every Tom, Dick and Harry to claim their special status. In 1682, local governor Kim Sok-ju reported to the king about draft-dodgers fabricating false family lineages for themselves.
“These days many draftees try to avoid the military service by claiming that they are the descendants of the ancient sages. For instance, those who have the family name, `Ahn,’ say that their forefather is the sage Ahn Yu, and those with the surname ‘Han’ call themselves the offspring of the sage Ki-cha. Therefore, only the direct descendants of the recognized sages should be exempt from military duty under a strict rule,” Kim implored to King Sukchong.
Yet the ill-disguised claims never stopped, so the Choson kings had to read a countless number of requests and appeals for military exemption. In 1633, a man named Myong Po-chung in Pyongyang claimed that he and his family were the descendants of Myong Sung, a Chinese national who became naturalized as a Koryo citizen, thereby meeting the requirement to be excluded from military service and taxation.
In a similar case, Wang Hup and 11 others filed an appeal to the king in 1660 calling for their military exemption. The reason? Wang claimed their forefathers were the royal family of the Koryo Dynasty, which preceded the Choson.
For all the uncertain evidence and dubious claims, there was nothing much the Choson kings could do but simply allow them to circumvent the law. These claimants cleverly cited their unidentifiable origins, almost always referring to a sacred order of King Taejo, the founder of the Choson Kingdom.
Some people even argued that King Taejo’s grandfather or great-grandfather was their distant ancestor. It was a fairly good excuse for legally avoiding military service, as long as they could prove it.
Lee Sae-pung was one of these self-styled royal descendants. In 1630, Lee filed suit with the government claiming that his distant ancestors included King Taejo and that he was therefore entitled to the annual stipend given to descendants of the royal family. He also demanded an exemption from compulsory labor and military service requirements.
In response to Lee’s claim, the Ministry of the Military gave this report to the king: “Of course, the distant descendants of King Taejo are entitled to exemptions from military service. However, the number of these claimants has greatly multiplied over the past centuries and worse, all the related documents were deleted after the wars with Japan and China, making it hard to prove their claims.”
The ministry report continued, “What’s worse, as the law and order of the nation are disintegrating, people are increasingly forging documents in order to avoid military service. Therefore, a close probe is in order before accepting their claims.”
Officially, automatic military exemptions for the descendants of national heroes were extended to the ninth generation. In 1742, there was a court dispute over the nine-generation privilege since the rule was changed such that it applied to only five generations around that time.
An official named Suh Chong-ok said, “Now the nine-generation rule has been changed to only five. Which way should we go?”
Prime minister Kim Jae-ro responded, “We don’t have to extend the privilege to the ninth generation if the claimants have fallen into the lower class. Five generations will do.”
But the king said, “Since only a few of the descendants of the national heroes have obtained government posts recently, I have pity on them. Moreover, I cannot help but think of ways to help those in decline. Who knows what will happen to your descendants? Therefore, the nine-generation rule will be adopted again.”
All the more perplexing was that some members of the yangban class did whatever it took to be exempted from not only the military service but also the other duties required of every citizen.
In 1710, official Lee Jae said to the king: “It has turned out that some of the descendants of national sages have tried every available ploy to avoid other duties, such as compulsory labor on government projects, by taking advantage of the old clause allowing them to be exempt from military service.”
It is a pity that these yangban, not unlike the modern-day wealthy and powerful embroiled in the draft scandal, held the misguided belief that they were born with a military exemption privilege.