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Netflix show sparks new debate over S. Korea's military conscription

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 on Aug 27.

Starring Jung Hae-in and Koo Kyo-hwan, the six-episode drama follows military police 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.

He said: "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."

Asked about the popularity of the show, a National 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 AWOL (absent without leave) 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, amid decades of tensions with North Korea.

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

PRISON

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

The ministry said that 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.

D.P. 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.

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. - REUTERS

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