A growing military scandal involving the questionable deaths of recruits is troubling many South Koreans:
“But that changed last week, after a human rights group published the details from the army’s internal investigation, along with photos of Private Yoon’s body covered with bruises and gashes. The report prompted a public outcry, joined this week by President Park Geun-hye, expressing the widespread frustration that the army had not ended the culture of violence within its ranks.
‘For decades, the military has promised to correct this problem whenever an incident like this happened, but it keeps recurring,’ Ms. Park said at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. ‘We must thoroughly investigate the perpetrators, and those who turned a blind eye, and punish them as a warning to others.’”
Mandatory military service is a big deal, obviously. It’s almost two years of your life and, unlike serving in the US military, you basically get paid pennies an hour. Which isn’t to say US troops are rolling in cash, but they get a decent amount of compensation whereas South Korean enlisted troops don’t. It’s “service” in both senses of the term.
A lot of my male students here will basically disappear from my class in the middle of the semester, as they’ve been called up for duty. Of course, it makes no sense to me — either do your service before or after you get your college degree, not during.
Further, the older post-service students come back here, in their mid to late 20’s, and all of a sudden have to suck up to their “senior” students who may be all of 20 and have never been through the trials of ROKA. The rigid hierarchy among university students here, based solely on seniority, is still something that shocks me at times. And you can imagine how disheartening it must be for an older, post-service student having to put up with hazing from somebody he considers to be merely a boy. It’s a Confucian paradox, if you will.
And it’s not just the physical and psychological aspect of attaining “manhood” through military service that counts, either. Anecdotally, a lot of Korean men lose their virginity during their first year of service as part of a ritual visit to prostitutes. If you have an M.B.A. I guess you’d call it an exercise in “team building.”
That’s deeply disturbing on a whole other level, but suffice it to say military service is a crucial aspect of respectability for Korean men, for their identity even, but something they tend to really dislike. When I ask my older male students how their service was, they usually just say “boring.” A few of them seemed to genuinely enjoy it (a former student was a special forces paratrooper with some amazing stories) but it’s rare.
Another note: I’m using the “Advanced Conversation” tag to mark articles that I’ll be using with my adult students during the course of the semester. This piece is probably “hotter” than I’d usually like to bring in (as would a piece dealing with sex, politics, or marriage and divorce) but I do like to bring in NYT pieces from time to time to challenge my students and hopefully build their confidence a bit. I.e., if you can read this, you’re basically at a higher comprehension level than most Americans are.