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Mandatory Honor: Reflection on the South Korean Army Service

By: Richard Woojun Shim

By: Richard Woojun Shim

At 4 a.m. on June 25th 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea crossing the 38-parallel. It took the North Korean Army only three days to claim Seoul, according to the website of a Korean government agency, The National Archives of Korea. The website reports a total of approximately 6.5 million people dislocated from home, as a result of the war. After three years of blood and terror, the two countries entered an armistice, still leaving the two at war even until this date.

Jung Shik Kim, 83, was a refugee from North Korea during the Korean War. She has a benign smile and graceful white, curly hair. Back in the 1940s, her parents were considered one of the most prosperous in the country, as his father owned a successful gold mine industry. “I never stepped on other people’s property; everywhere I went, it was all my father’s land,” said Kim. At the age of 18, however, she lost everything; she had to move southward, as the Communist government took away their land. She spoke about her life in a long phone interview from her home in Incheon, South Korea.

She walked for months. She could only carry limited amount of food, she said, and the long walk every day made her weary. The United States military seemed to have everything. “Every time I saw them, I would yell ‘Give me chocolate’ in my broken English,” she said. “The occasional sugar is the only thing that kept me upbeat and let me walk a couple more steps.”

“The effects of chocolate were only temporary, though; my head felt constantly empty,” said Kim. “I heard high pitch sounds inside my head with excruciating pain.” She heard gunshots and tanks from a far distance. “Those sounds bothered me the least; the sounds in my head had already overwhelmed me. I had to constantly tell myself: ‘Just walk’.”

Ever since the tragedy of war, the South Korean government required able young Korean men to serve the country for two years, due to small population and thus a smaller ground force. The purpose of the compulsory service is primarily to fend off invasions but is also to create deterrence preventing further invasions, according to a website from the Korean government, Military Manpower Administration.

Here is how the story goes: every young Korean adult, when he turns nineteen, must receive a physical examination to determine his fitness for service, according to Military Manpower Administration. Depending on the results and his educational background, the examinee is given a rating of one through six, where one to three means full, active service for two years. About thirty days prior to enlistment, the to-be soldiers receive a mail from the government telling them to prepare to enlist.

On the arranged date, the prospective soldiers arrive at Nonsan Training Camp for five weeks of basic training where, according to the Korean Army website, they learn how to become proper soldiers. They will learn everything from the proper salute to individual combat skills. Building camaraderie, they must learn to feel comfortable in the life or death situation.

At the end of all training, the soldiers will be relocated to bases where they will spend their two years in service until they reach the Sergeant status. To begin, the website explains, the recruits will receive a badge with one stripe, signifying their start as a fresh Private.

Jun Hyuk Chang is an 18-year-old senior at Phillips Academy with a buzz cut a little bit longer than a soldiers’. Sitting in his room where the Korean flag proudly hangs, Chang recounted the moment he decided to study at the States. As a fifth grader, he came to the States for an education that fosters development through discussion, rather than the Korean “cramming” system of education. He has a goal to attend college in America and see how everything unfolds from that point.

As well as a motivated student, Chang is a Korean citizen. And so, he must serve in the Korean military. Coincidentally and rather ironically wearing a camouflage-patterned sweater, Chang said, “I am fine with the idea of joining the military, but I do not want to simply waste two years not studying. I also literally at the most get paid 150 US dollars per month.” Under the justification of “compulsory service,” Korean soldiers get insufficiently paid; in fact, in Thailand where service is also compulsory, its soldiers receive a wage of about two times higher than that of Korean soldiers, according to a website of a Korean news source, Yonhap News. “I cannot concentrate on my studies, and I do not get paid sufficiently. How could I look forward to doing that for two years?” said Chang.

Korean Augmentation To the United States Army (KATUSA) provides opportunity to students like Chang to continue speaking English while serving, Military Manpower Administration’s website explained. A score of 83+/120 on the internet-based TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) is required for application to the program, the website explains. The application system, however, cannot discriminate fluent English speakers with average Korean men since the mean TOEFL score for Koreans is 84/120, according to the Educational Testing Service. Worse, a higher score does not give you any competitive edge since all the applicants above the minimum score enter a raffle for selection, according to Military Manpower Administration’s website.

Private First Class (PFC) Shim of the Seventeenth Battalion finished his sophomore year at University of Southern California in 2014 when he joined the Korean army. He majored in chemical engineering and was about to begin his own undergraduate research. Sitting in front of the old Samsung monitor located in the military’s computer room, he rather proudly presented his newly acquired two stripes on his left shoulder. “I added another stripe a few weeks ago. Two more stripes to go before I get discharged as a Sergeant.”

“I am one of the luckier soldiers. Most soldiers are stationed far from home. As for me, I am stationed only an hour and a half southward from my house,” said PFC Shim. “I can eat my mother’s warm rice and soup from time to time, and that really boosts my energy especially in the cold wintertime, and I hate winter,” he said. “I do not want to sound like a summer soldier and a sunshine patriot, but personally winter is the worst time to be a soldier. I am sure that a lot of people share my feelings,” said PFC Shim. “After you see your bleach-pale toes after a forty kilometer march in the snow, even the most patriotic of patriots will hate the winter.”

I am a senior from Seoul, South Korea, boarding at Phillips Academy with plans to attend a four-year college in the US. Next year, when I turn 19, I too must join the Korean military for compulsory service. To retain my Korean citizenship, I must stop my education for two years and serve my country. Since I am an aspiring medical doctor, such interruption in my education could be detrimental to my development. In all honesty, though, I am afraid. The idea of training to kill is one thing, but with the incidents that happened recently, I am more frightened for my own safety.

North Korea, on July 4th 2015, carried out a land mine aggression in the Southern DMZ, and as a result, two soldiers were severely injured; midst the smoke and confusion, their legs got amputated in split seconds during their daily border vigilance, according to Yonhap News’ website. Furthermore, on April 7th 2014, a soldier passed away because of excessive beating and harassment by his superiors, according to a report in the Huffington Post Korea on August 6th 2014.

Although PFC Shim said that the military have well addressed the problems and made changes accordingly, the threats from the North and within the barracks still chill my spine since I could also be a victim. Serving for my country is an honorary experience; however, I put my safety as a priority.


3 Comments on Mandatory Honor: Reflection on the South Korean Army Service

  1. Joshua Seungmin Lee // December 13, 2015 at 5:42 am // Reply

    Military enrollment in Korea has also been problematic in other respects, one of which being the constant delay of the actual enrollment date. Because of the constant bombardment of applications and inundation of people who have enter the military, a considerably large number of people experienced their enlistment dates getting cancelled or postponed, further hindering student education and depriving opportunities for work. The Korean military is in dire need for huge implementations and reconstructions in the their system.


  2. Joshua Seungmin Lee // December 13, 2015 at 5:44 am // Reply



  3. wonderful comment !


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