February 28, 2019:
After years of complaints from conscripts, their parents and former soldiers the South Korean army has allowed soldiers to once more have cell phones in the barracks. But there are still rules for the use of the phones. The troops can only use their phones in the barracks after 5:30 PM until lights out at 10 PM. On weekends they can use them from 7 AM to 10 PM. The military will implement this new plan at starting in April 2019 after testing it during 2018. That testing first involved 400 troops in April 2018, then with 7,000 in August. This April all 380,000 conscripts will be free to use their phones under the new rules.
South Korean soldiers and their parents have been pressuring the government to allow conscripts to have cell phones with them as they do their two years mandatory service. The military has long banned conscripts from having phones because senior officers considered cell phones, especially smartphones (the only kind most South Korean conscripts have these days) a security risk in the hands of young soldiers. What really annoyed the conscripts is that they saw American soldiers of the same age being allowed to have cell phones with them all the time. Conscripts were also aware that the largest cell phone manufacturer (Samsung) is a South Korean firm and there have been plenty of stories about Samsung phones being used by the American military on active duty and even in combat. So the South Korean soldiers wonder; what is the problem?
The problem began in in 2011 when the South Korean Army banned troops from posting images of military equipment or facilities online. It was also forbidden to discuss military matters online. To enforce the ban (which had actually been around for a while, in one form or another), the army set up a monitoring system. By mid-2011, about a thousand troops have been caught violating the rules, and 300 were punished. The new rules didn't keep the North Koreans from getting the military information they want, but it did hurt morale among South Korean troops. This is just one of many reasons for low morale but one that could be easily fixed and eventually the senior leadership was convinced.
Back in 2011, the cell phone ban was especially tough for South Korean troops. That's because South Korea is the most wired nation on the planet, with most households possessing high-speed Internet connections. Young men of military age typically have smartphones as well, often more than one. Troops are forbidden to have cell phones or digital cameras with them while on duty, but this is also difficult to police. The barracks are another matter.
Despite the complete success of the 2011 cell phone ban by 2012, a growing number of South Korea Army officers were denouncing the smartphone as the most powerful weapon the North Koreans had. The basic problem was that nearly all South Korean soldiers owned smartphones and would go to great lengths to hang on to them, even when forbidden to carry them while on duty. In many cases, smartphones were not allowed on military bases. All this because smartphones distract soldiers from their work, especially boring chores like guard duty. This was discovered, with increasing frequency over the previous few years as NCOs and officers out, especially at night, checking up on the guards, found the troops engrossed in some smartphone game, texting, or reading an e-book. Despite a growing number of soldiers being punished for having, and misusing, smartphones on duty, troops continued to risk using the devices. Some military psychologists were describing this attachment to their cell phones as an addiction. South Korea already recognizes addiction to the Internet or computer games as something worthy of serious medical care. All this was compounded by the fact that most South Korean soldiers are conscripts, who don't want to be in the military anyway.
Another problem with cell phones in the hands of soldiers is the amount of secret military information that gets leaked via Facebook pages and the Internet in general. South Korean intelligence experts know that North Korea has security analysts who do nothing but monitor the Internet for stuff South Korean soldiers have posted online. This adds up to a lot of very detailed information (including lots of pictures and videos) on the South Korean military, what it is up to, and what it is planning.
In response, the military sought to control the damage smartphones did to the military by admitting to the troops that the senior leaders knew what's going on and why. Soldiers who continued to hurt national security because of cell phone addiction, or simply not thinking before posting something, were warned of more severe punishments. The military leaders said the nation could not afford continued leaks and dereliction of duty (especially by those guarding bases or borders). Despite all this, the forbidden cell phone use continued. It was bad for morale and it wasn’t until 2018 that the military leadership decided to try trusting their troops on the issue.
This is not the first time such a problem developed. In the 1970s and 80s, there were portable (handheld) radios and cassette tape players to distract troops on guard duty. The U.S. military solved the problem by ending conscription and making it clear that anyone caught on duty with these portable devices would lose their jobs. Thus the smartphone may be the final cause of ending conscription in South Korea. But that has not happened yet and the South Koreans looked to how similar armed forces, with lots of conscripts, handled the problem. This led South Korean commanders to examine how their Israeli counterparts handled the cell phone problem.
The “cell phones for soldiers” policy in Israel has gone through many changes since these devices first appeared after 2005. Not just cell phones, but also the use of social networks. Back in 2010, Israel prohibited active duty troops from even using social networking sites like Facebook. This included access via PCs or smartphones. This was to prevent information on current or planned operations getting to terrorists. These leaks had occurred several times already by 2010. As a result of that one Israeli soldier was court-martialed (and spent ten days in jail) for reporting an upcoming raid on his Facebook page. The soldier had casually mentioned that his unit was going to conduct a raid in the West Bank, to arrest some Palestinians believed planning a terrorist attack on Israel. Another soldier who saw the Facebook posting alerted the army, and the raid was called off.
For a long time, the Israelis felt they couldn't ban troops from using social networking sites, mainly because most of them are reservists (and former conscripts) called up for a short period of active duty. Instead, the army just kept reminding everyone that only they can avoid deadly accidents on the information highway. When this did not work a total ban for troops, while on duty, was attempted. That didn’t work either. One problem was that for some people social networks like Facebook are an addiction that is not easily overcome.
The Israeli army tried constant reminders to soldiers to think twice before they post any military related items on the Internet. To that end, the military released information about the soldier who got convicted, emphasizing the punishment angle. Just another reminder for the troops. But since 2010 the Israelis have also come to realize that cell phones can be very useful in combat. The Americans were demonstrating this in Iraq and Afghanistan. That resulted in local commanders being given a lot of discretion on what the cell phone rules were for their troops. That led to different rules for different units and the debate rages on. South Korean troops ultimately benefitted from the Israeli experience when South Korean leaders paid attention to it and adapted Israeli rules to work, it is hoped, in South Korea.