When you live in South Korea you can sometimes feel like you live on an army base. There are soldiers everywhere and although I never felt unsafe living on the Korean peninsula, the soldiers are a constant reminder that South Korea’s military remains among the toughest in the world. A necessity given our northern neighbor, to say nothing of the current resident of the white house.
I’ve recently had a couple of cute encounters with these boys in uniform and I felt that they both warranted a blog post, which is also a great chance of introducing my readers to the Korean military.
Last week I had booked a trip to Gwangju in the Jeolla-do province to visit a friend from Denmark who’s currently studying at Chosun University. I took the saemaeul train from Yongsan station in the afternoon and had planned on getting a lot of reading done on the way down there. Well, plans are made to be changed. In Suwon, about 30 minutes south of Seoul, a young uniformed soldier got on the train and took the window seat next to me. He looked a bit upset, but I figured that he was just sad that he had to leave his home and go back to the barracks. He started fumbling with his backpack, pulled out a stack of handwritten letters on pink heart-covered stationary, then folded them neatly and put them back and stared out the window.
After a few minutes I heard him sniffle, and when I felt his muscles cramping in spasms next to me I realized he was crying. I immediately pulled out a tissue from my bag and asked him if he was okay. He then turned to me, eyes red and tears rolling down his cheeks, and told me that his girlfriend had just broken up with him that morning. I instantly put a comforting hand on the rough material of his uniform sleeve and started consoling him. I kindly asked if he wanted to talk about it, in which case I was ready to listen, and he then spilled out how they had started dating six months before he enlisted in the army, how she was his high school sweetheart, and how he had taken this leave just to be home for her birthday. He had bought her a beautiful watch, taken her out to a romantic dinner, and then, on the morning of his return, she had called him up and ended their relationship.
The poor boy, who told me he was 19 years old, was heartbroken. He told me he had been re-reading the love letters she had written to him to see if there were any signs of her wanting to end things, but he couldn’t find any. Now he just felt miserable. I offered him some crackers and a couple of tissues and, in an effort to change the topic of our conversation, encouraged him to tell me more about life in the barracks, pretending that my male Korean friends had told me nothing. His smile returned and he proudly told me that he was 운전병, designated driver, in the army. Pretending never to have heard the term before (my Korean best friend had the same post when he was enlisted, so I actually know about it quite some detail) I asked what it entailed and praised him for being an important part of the Korean defense. This seemingly made him feel proud and he willingly told more about how he only had 200 days left to serve and how he disliked being unable to leave the military grounds except for one Saturday per month. He also told me about all the video games that he enjoyed playing during his free time and how he loathed having to rise at 6am every morning for the mandatory morning exercise. When he had to get off, he smiled and thanked me for having cheered him up.
My second encounter with the military was with one of my new students, who so far has attended all my classes this semester wearing an immaculate formal dress uniform with accompanying beret. I finally had the chance to curiously interrogate him on the reasons for this attire when he visited me during my office hours last Friday. He explained that he was a member of our 학군단, our ROTC (reserve officers training center) at Sogang and was required to wear the dress uniform throughout March as a human promotion poster for all the freshmen. He proudly told me that it was a great privilege to be in the ROTC and that he upon graduation would still have to join the military, but would be able to do so with a higher rank than all the new recruits. As an added bonus, he would be able to finish his studies within four years without taking the common two-year leave of absence midway. Eyeing my whiteboard, he then began teaching me about all the ranks in the Korean military and told me that he would leave Sogang with the rank of second lieutenant, 소위 in Korean. I actually learned a lot, but rather than bore you with the details here, I’ll refer you to this detailed article on the Korean military and its ranks.
Before moving to Korea, I hardly ever had any contact with the military, so it still seems somewhat exotic to me. The Korean government under President Moon Jae-in has recently moved to shorten the mandatory military service from the current 21 months to 18 months. I’m sure this will be a welcome change for the young men who are all required to serve sometime between the ages of 18 and 35.