the culture that is #SKorea: military service

Obviously election time is coming. GNP (now renamed to Saenuri Party) made a proposal to raise the enlisted’s wages four times. SK political parties usually do something like this in election time but what, four times? Probably you’ll be shocked if you don’t know well about how enlisted are treated in the SK military. So how much are they going to be paid if the proposal is in effect? *drum roll* About $357 for a month! It means that they are currently being paid about $100 for a month and you’re yet to be surprised: $100 is for sergeants, the highest rank for the enlisted in the SK military system. For an ordinary male citizen of SK who serves his duty as an enlisted, he would be paid in total amount of about $1,670 through his entire service days (21 months).

Bad is not only the pay. 126 soldiers die annually on average since 2004. Except for the Yeonpyeong, SK has not conducted any offensive since 2004. So why did they die? 60 percent of the deaths were suicide. This obviously is a serious issue even in a cold, strategical point of view. Even though I didn’t serve the duty as an enlisted, I spent a lot of time and talked a lot with them as I was their commanding officer so I might give you a picture of the SK military culture and its issues.

After 6 weeks of basic military training, soldiers are dispatched to posts or bases that are usually remote from urbanized community. With some exception, their activity is confined within their posts, even after routine. There are not enough recreation, communication device, i.e. telephone, internet connection and enlisted are not allowed to carry a cellphone and a personal computer. In short, they are isolated from society they used to belong while they are serving the country, short of their regular leave. It often happens that a private on his first regular leave shirks to return and eventually ends up being arrested by military police. (feels bad, man…)

It is relatively easy in this isolated society with a strict hierarchy, to be more violent than they used to be. It would be no exaggeration that every single enlisted suffers from any kind of violence, including verbal ones as well as physical ones, at least once or more. A delicate mind sometimes lose his temper and accident happens.

The worst case of the accidents happened in 2005, at a guard post in the military demarcation line. PFC. Kim, who suffered from severe verbal violence by his superiors, went on a shooting rampage and thrown a grenade into a barrack, killed 8including an officer. It was a huge shock to everybody because it happened in the front line. Even the stubborns in the Minstry Of Defense recognized the seriousness of the issue, they grilled commanding officers to prevent accidents at any price. This was the birth of so-called “the status quo military.”

관리형 군대, “the management-typed military” when literally translated, the status quo military’s primary aim was preventing any possible accidents from happening. Sentries are not provided with live bullets with exception of those who are guarding the MDL. Face-to-face talk with newly transferred private was routinized. Letters to a commander from a private often blows a harsh wind in a camp so commanding officers have to keep their eyes upon their privates. A newborn military proverb, “a private above a four-star general” came out in this era. Not only stubborn machos but even good-willed officers became wondering why they are doing this.

The problem lies among these these facts: 1) every male citizen has to serve his duty but 2) SK doesn’t have enough budget to maintain a military of this size or SK doesn’t need that many soldiers. That the general circumstance of the military has to be improved is obvious. For example, allowing the enlisted to carry their own cellphones and PCs to relieve them from the feeling of isolation does not cost much and is not harmful, if with proper security options. However, increasing their wages and improving facilities definitely cost very much. The entire SKorean military system has to be reformed and the reform probably would be related to downsizing and old men with stars in their heads will not tolerate the military downsizing. (At this point you’ve got to remind of that SK had been ruled by the military. Surprisingly a lot of them still hold the power today.) So the problem remains still.

In where (almost) everyone serves the duty, especially where the country itself does not treat well those who served, the service itself is not considered something honorable. It used to be something that discriminates those who didn’t serve. I’d like to name this certain mentality “the solidarity of pain,” banding those who took the pain together and persecuting those who didn’t. I think that the same would be true about racism. If you are really happy and having a benefit for being white, they wouldn’t care that much about the aliens.

In every election time, the service issue of candidates (or their sons) comes out. Without an exception, “the reserved,” which means that they served the duty, exasperates and the candidate in question takes serious damage in his/her political career. Lee Hoi-chang, the most prominent presidential candidate of the 2002 election, had to be defeated by Roh Moo-hyun over his sons’ shirking the duty. Recently the same issues were raised upon the Seoul mayor Park Won-soon’s son andthe Seoul education chief Kwak No-hyun’s son. (Well, the President Lee Myung-bak was once ridiculed by his lack of any military experience.)

But it is not that hard to imagine what they would feel, as fathers, when their sons are going to enter the military where every 126 soldiers dies annually and there are ways to shun the duty, legitimately or illegitimately. So what we are about to see is an inequality of the service. Rich boys don’t go and live, poor boys go and (sometimes) die. The recognition of the inequality aggravates the discrimination. Anyway those who actually aggravates the inequality are not around the infuriated — they don’t share a playground with them, so the unlucky ones who didn’t serve often become their victims.

Change is needed, indeed, but opinions vary about how. Some of so-called “liberals” call for a change into volunteer military system. I have a serious doubt of the actual result and I sense their dislike of the military issues and their trying to put the issues aside and to not think about them. If the system changes into volunteer system, it would be far easier to send soldiers into war zones, as we see in the case of the U.S.: “Why do they always send the poor?


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