The military — and the major rite of passage for South Korean men.
Sino-Korean, from the Chinese characters 軍 (military) 隊 (group or line of people).
In South Korea, all able-bodied males are conscripted into the military, generally for a 21-month enlistment. (North Korea’s conscription lasts even longer.) This is a huge deal for most men, who generally have to interrupt their educations and social lives to spend nearly two years in uncomfortable quarters doing mostly menial work for rather less than $200/month in pay. These facts are so widely recognized that the Korean Air Force itself made a musical parody of Les Miserables about the (exaggerated, they make sure to point out) hardships of a soldier’s life. (There are English subtitles!)
Korean men talk about “going to the army” (군대 가다, kundae kata) as a signal event in their life — it’s in many ways the rite of passage that makes you a true Korean man. However, as you may have gathered from the Les Mis parody, it’s a little less fun than a Bar Mitzvah.
I know rather a lot about Korean army service and army life because I spent a year working for the ROK Army’s military academy, living in army housing among the officers and NCOs. This also happens to be how I met my husband, who was serving his conscription as an officer there.
Most conscripts, like my husband, serve in the Army. While some serve in the Air Force, Navy or Marines, 495,000 of the approximately 630,000 service members in 2014 were in the Army (2014 Defense White Paper).
Even within branches, the type of service makes a big difference in the quality of a soldier’s life. Having a special talent can sometimes get you a better assignment. For example, young men who speak English well might have the chance to TA for English teachers like me or work with US troops as KATUSA (카투사) — in the latter case, sometimes finishing their service with a very filthy repertoire of English curse words. Skilled musicians might get to serve in military bands, like the airmen in the Les Mis parody above, and those skilled in sports might get to help train others in their specialty.
People with advanced training — lawyers, doctors, or engineers, for example — might get to serve as officers working those fields. This is also a possibility for people with expertise in an academic field, who might have the chance to teach their subject to cadets at one of the military academies–which is what my husband was doing. Officers are able to live more or less normal lives and get paid a real salary, working 8 or so hours Monday to Friday with some extra duties; the trade-off is that the service lasts three years plus six weeks of boot camp instead of 21 months.
Location also makes a difference. Where I worked, on the edge of Seoul, conscripts had access to a library and other good facilities and could easily meet their friends or girlfriends on a day pass.
But most conscripts have, I think, much less happy lives than the ones I observed, patrolling the DMZ or stationed in another remote area doing menial work. One guy I knew spent his service fishing the bodies of bridge jumpers out of the Han River.
There’s a lot I could say about the army, and a lot I’m not going to say, because it’s a pretty controversial issue and that’s not the point of this project. But, the army’s place in the culture can’t really be understood without mentioning this controversy.
There’s definitely a lot of angst over conscription, especially with the number of suicides, bullying, and abuse, all of which are real problems. There’s also an undercurrent of resentment among young men that women don’t have to serve, which I’ve heard used as justification for some pretty hateful speech toward women.
All of this is compounded by the fact that Korea was ruled by an often brutal military dictatorship during much of the second half of the twentieth century, until the late 1980s in fact, and was occupied by the Japanese for much of the first half. This understandably left a bad taste in people’s mouths, so military service isn’t really honored the way it is in the States, where we haven’t had this experience.
On the other hand, as long as North and South Korea are technically at war, we’re going to have to have conscription. There are a lot of hard things about military life, but it’s a necessary duty (I don’t think humans are ready for world peace), and I genuinely admire many of the officers, soldiers and cadets I worked with and taught. Maybe it was easy for me to like working for the army because I wasn’t a conscript, but I actually kind of loved it, and my affection for the people I met there makes me hesitant to criticize it too heavily.
Another reason I’m hesitant is that a lot of the problems that occur in the ROK Army are, in my view, basically intensifications of problems in Korean society at large — especially the bullying and the pressure that sometimes result from the extremely hierarchical nature of a lot of relationships. (See Sŏnbae). I know the ROK Army has talked about steps to ameliorate this, and I hope those steps make a difference.
Maybe I’ll feel differently about it if my future son goes to the army — which he’ll have to do under current law if he wants to keep Korean citizenship in adulthood — or maybe some people will say I’ve been brainwashed, but overall, my time with the ROK Army just increased my patriotism (toward South Korea… Shh, don’t tell Uncle Sam!).
If you want to learn more, you can hear two Korean men talk in English about their time in the military in this video (Part 1) and this one (Part 2) from the site My Korean Husband. Ask a Korean also has an overview with more technical details than I’ve included here, although I think some of the info is a little out of date at this point.
Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea (2014). 2014 Defense White Paper. Online. 1 June 2016.
“군대.” 네이버 국어 사전. n.d. 인터넷. 2016년6월1일.