One of the dominant facts in a young Korean man’s life, perhaps the biggest one, is the inevitability of military service. All able-bodied young men (although exceptions are sometimes made for those with enough money, or the right connections, as with everything else here) are required to do a minimum of 26 months of military service (ranging up to thirty months in the Air Force). The callup usually comes about midway through university.
I often wonder if this single fact goes a long way toward explaining some of the enormous differences in attitudes between Korean men and, for example, us Canucks, as much as culture and language and other factors. I’ve talked before about the infantilization of the youth here. Almost every 20-year-old I meet here seems to have the emotional maturity of, say, a 15 year-old in the west. This despite (or perhaps as a result of) the fact that during their high school years, they are driven to succeed, with students who hope to go on to university often sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night or less for years on end, and attending private evening schools for every subject they study, including english, after the normal school day. This kind of grinding 7 am to midnight schedule is the only way, they believe (or more significantly, their parents believe), for them to score reasonably well on the national university entrance exam. Their performance on that exam will decide the caliber of university they attend (at least if their parents are not wealthy, or do not know the right people), and thus the shape of the remainders of their lives. Not attending one of the first-rank (in name if not nature) universities guarantees that you will never reach the top of your chosen profession. The doors will simply not be open to you.
By the time young people reach university age, they may have had very little contact with the opposite sex, as single-gender schools are still very common for teenages, and the long hours they put in preclude much in the way of socialization. With the boys in particular (and boys they still are), the culture has molded them, their mothers have explicity taught and trained them, that they are the absolute center of the universe, and everything is secondary to their will and whim, and amongst other things, that throwing a tantrum is a perfectly acceptable way to react to being thwarted. A first-born male is the shining, much-beloved center of any family, and this is communicated (both to the boy and to his female siblings if any) throughout their young lives.
Suddenly, though, these spoiled, pampered young men are required to join the military. Stories that Korean friends have told me indicate that the treatment of new recruits is uniformly brutal by their ‘seniors’, and random beatings and abuse are the norm. It is, by all accounts, a hellish experience, made more so by the fact that it requires a fundamental shift in how these young men must view their world. It is during military service that most young men start the serious drinking and smoking that characterizes so many Korean men, and during this time as well that most of them lose both their virginity and their innocence. Any pretence they held about equality and fairness is systematically stripped from them, and they are taught that the rules for adult life can be summed up adequately by the phrase ‘f–k or be f–ked’. This, it often seems, becomes the mantra that they carry with them into business dealings in later life.
So I sympathize to an extent with Yoo Seung-jun, a singer who recently took full US citizenship, primarily to avoid the draft. He has been barred from re-entering Korea, and there’s a fair bit of controversy swirling around this decision. At this point, though, with Bush-created fears of a new war on the peninsula running higher than in recent memory, there is little sympathy amongst the general population, and little concern about the interesting precendent that this government decision has created.
What would you do if your country were demand military service, or institute a wartime draft? I’m still not certain, but then I haven’t really lived there for more than a decade…