Image credit: Korea Defense Photo Lab
Perhaps, the single most salient collective social experience for all conscripts is stepping into a barbershop for a buzz cut, that macho crop unpopular among young Korean men. Their friends film the whole process, capturing the moments of surprised reaction and raillery. The videos, once uploaded online, attract viewers in search of what to expect on D-1. Lee Chang-ha, a corporal in the South Korean army, shows me a video in which his giggly chums take turns bulldozing his wavy curls down to a crisp stubble, followed by a group shot where he flashes his widest grin.
Putting behind the brunt of the languished fun of the day before, and their hair sheared to the scalp, the conscripts shamble to the boot camp to bid lugubrious farewells to their loved ones. For almost all Korean men, this moment has been the incontrovertible reality since their births. Actually, from the very birth of the Republic of Korea.
In 1949, eight months after the birth of the Republic of Korea in the preceding year, its constitution adopted mandatory military service for all able-bodied men. International turmoil and fragility of the fledgling republic at the time seemed to warrant the imperative of mandatory enrollment. Thirty-five years of Japanese colonisation of the Korean Peninsula came to a dragged yet latterly abrupt end on a sultry day of August 15, 1945, as Emperor Hirohito of Japan broadcast over the radio the Japanese surrender in the Second World War. Rejoicing erupted all over the world. In Korea, people milled about in groups overwhelmed with euphoric tears, while reams of military documents from the Japanese bases adorned the skies day and night gyrating in blazing plumes.
Everyone thought it was the end of all tribulations and war fatigue. However, contrary to the nomenclature of this independence day—kwangbok (return of light)—more plight lurked in the dark. Having consented to the U.S. entreaty for their support in East Asia at the Potsdam Conference prior to the Japanese surrender, the Soviet forces filed into the Korean Peninsula from the north while the American forces trudged on from the south herding the vanquished Japanese. Consigned later to a trusteeship under the United States and the Soviet Union in December 1945, the peninsula harboured two diametrically opposed ideological and political fervours.
Under prolonged colonial subjugation and their resources and labour pool sapped by wartime exertion, most Asian countries witnessed communist movements rearing their heads with the bunting of economic alternatives and recovery as a promise. Not surprisingly, Korean communists sheltering in China strutted to the peninsula alongside the incoming Soviet forces. In 1948, when the election scheme for a unified state proffered by the United Nations flopped, the peninsula was split into two distinct political entities, the democratic South pitted against the communist North.
Following the constant state of volatility and skirmishes around the border, North Korea eventually mounted a foray into the U.S.-backed South in 1950, setting off three years of carnage. It was only after the armistice that the South Korean regime properly implemented full-scale conscription, having realised that a paltry regular army reinforced by an ad hoc wartime militia would be insufficient to fend off future aggression.
Barring the year 1968 when North Korean spooks infiltrated the South in their botched attempt to annihilate the Blue House staff—the South Korean seat of government, the Ministry of National Defense (MNF) had incrementally reduced the initial conscription term from three years to eighteen months for those enlisted in the army as of 2020. Notwithstanding the whittled term and improved conditions of military life, a growing segment of the South Korean populace decries draft. The annual number of positive respondents to the Gallup poll regarding the perception of the military has declined since 2003.
The epiphany dawned finally that conscription predicated on coercion and unquestioning sacrifice for authority clashed with libertarian values fostered by the thriving economy and globalisation. Time has taken its toll. Things are different from the past. Its draft-aged cohort is awash neither with elation of independence nor fear for the young republic felt by earlier generations. Besides, they no longer need to trundle to the boot camp for fodder like most of their famished grandfathers did. With the country's economy being the tenth largest one in the world by nominal GDP, it has become harder to die of starvation than kick the bucket from obesity.
Now instead, young men seethe with a poignant sense of alienation between their constricted status as grunts and the invidious aloofness of the top brass, with the MNF doling out less than a third of the nationally mandated minimum wage to every draftee. How abysmal and miserly of the state after stripping them of liberty, the conscripts think.
Cognizant of the anguished, forlorn young males and their families awaiting enlistment, more election candidates on their barnstorming have started broaching the issue of conscription and further benefits for the draftees. After all, eighteen invaluable months of millions of prime lives are at stake. For instance, Park Yong-jin, once a strong contender for the ruling Minjoo Party’s presidential primary, proposes a gradual swivel to a volunteer military system and soldierly wages tantamount to those paid by top-notch South Korean corporations.
Meanwhile, Lee Jae-myung, governor of South Korea’s most populous province, Gyeonggi-do, and now the presidential nominee for the Minjoo Party, suggests keeping conscription alive, though with “positive” tweaks. Albeit less sweeping and palatable to prospective conscripts, he still envisages reduced mandatory term while enhancing the military with concomitant acceptance of more volunteer career soldiers.
Anyways, the cogs are well oiled for the proponents of an enervated or abrogated conscription system, assailable no more to hawkish backwaters insisting on the robust existence of conventional foot soldiers. Yes, there are not enough newborns growing up eventually to replenish the diminishing conscription pool. The frustration of many aside, the only solution seems for the government to bleed its coffer. By all means, modern warfare comprises unmanned technology, AI, cyber security, and whizzing missiles, requiring only a select posse of professional personnel for strategic and maintenance purposes. Offering future volunteers enough financial enticement to serve in the military for longer could potentially secure enough heads for the smooth running of the modern military.
Yet political dither and contention over the scale and pace of transition have marked the past decade. Even the recent mildly commendable defense mid-term plan announced by MNF came under attack. Despite its proposal to augment the number of professional volunteers and civilian workforce to achieve a technologically advanced defense concept while accounting for the cratering population, some lambaste it for its intention to divert more benefits to future conscripts—though still puny. Overall, political haggling and hesitancy revolve not so much around liberal sensibility and humane concerns the young clamour for as around cynical calculations of the depleting number of draftable bodies and petty consideration of whom to remunerate more. Just as Mr Lee referred to conscription as “travail for all,” military boosterism so far falls on deaf ears.
Amid the national floundering to placate the young male demographic, however, Covid-19 lobbed an unexpectedly salutary dud into the military. Ever since the onset of the virus and the ensuing flurry of social restrictions on education and labour sectors, more and more males ripe for conscription have applied for enlistment. Rather than apprehensively awaiting the drab conscription letters from the Military Manpower Administration dictating when and where to whisk them off, they have deemed it opportune to join the military while Covid rages in society. The Air Force interviewed a record number of applicants in December 2020. For the Marine Corps, the number of candidates for induction in 2021 more than doubled compared with that of the previous year.
Pivotal to this altered perception of the military is the topsy-turvy reality of society outside. The foremost game-changing factor against this backdrop is the realisation that they are not sacrificing that much by being in the military. After all, even if they were outside in society, they might have been reeling from heavily strained university education systems and labour markets buckling under Covid-related repercussions. Given that they have no choice but to sacrifice almost two years of their life, no better time exists than now to brook this forced rite of passage with the least opportunity cost. Their freedom is straight-jacketed anyhow, be it in the military or outside.
Having taken a few semesters off his university for his military service, Sergeant Kim Min-wu recounts how other schoolmates have fared since his enlistment. Obviously, they are “missing out” on everything that has previously made schools worth paying for. Gone are the intellectually nurturing intimacy of in-person classes and seminars. So are the hustle and bustle of school clubs and parties where the youth flaunt their stamina and imbibe social lessons on the threshold of adulthood.
The real value of school is not necessarily the classes per se. It lies in the environment where clever, eager, and like-minded pupils congregate and maximise their synergy effect. Yet universities are not offering tuition discounts under Covid. “What a waste,” Min-wu declaims. In the meantime, he is serving his military duty without having to sacrifice those cherishable school years. “The timing of my coming to the military was absolutely phenomenal,” blares Min-wu over the din of a clunky chopper rattling towards the sun-blanched tarmac nearby.
Concerning the ever-present controversy over conscription, he comments that “what I most acutely felt was that my need for fairness was being violated.” His principal grievance before joining the army had been the situation where he would be “rotting” in the base against his will while those exempted from conscription were given free rein with their lives “working hard in society.”
As any young adults—as everyone, precisely speaking—he frequents his social media and LinkedIn accounts. Browsing through how other people live, he cannot resist feeling a sense of awe which then turns into fright arising from the unfair contrast between his life and theirs. Before conscription, he had been overwhelmed with self-consciousness and agitation about the prospect that “other people would be doing so much whereas I would be just stuck in the base.” After the apparent ravages of Covid, however, this sense of deprivation and jealousy has been quenched to a great degree. Regardless of where they are, everyone is having a hard time. “I’m sorry for saying this but I’m grateful,” trails Min-wu.
Subterranean yet still conveyed to families and friends of the rookies, another factor is at play that contributes to the positive uptick in the perception of the military. In light of the concerns of the military serving as a hotbed of cluster infections with its close-knit training and quartering conditions, stringent military regimes of training and work slackened. Free time reigns in their stead. Every time soldiers return to base from their occasional holidays or there arises a cause for concern out of contact tracing, quarantines flare up, unleashing extra free weeks. They may as well fulfill the constitutional obligation with ample free time.
Working for a defense contractor, Corporal Lee Chang-ha, mentioned at the start of this article, had led a hectic life, skipping town and schmoozing for contract deals in all corners of the earth. "But now, I feel like I’m on vacation here," he says. Contemplating the past seven years of "working my ass off and getting phone calls all the damn time," he laments that he had neglected himself. With training and work called off not so infrequently due to concerns for infection, he has found himself "feeling rather stable lately."
In addition, now that Covid has induced complete social isolation of the army personnel from society coupled with periodic quarantines, he has been able to focus on himself, mindful of his own needs. The personal upshot was momentous, prompting him to rethink his career. Owing to the newfound sense of stability and serenity, he managed to "devote more of my time to trying new areas that I haven’t done before." He adds, "Before the army, I never thought of changing my job, giving up this company." Now he has time to explore other fields in the defense industry he has only vaguely thought of before.
Chang-ha likens his military sojourn to Temple Stay, South Korea’s vaunted cultural program "where you jettison any connection with the outside world, relieve your stress, and just heal." All you need is a secluded Buddhist temple—or the military base for that matter—to ensconce yourself in and "feel like a newborn." Virgin Mary tattooed in sfumato peering up from his burly forearm, he muses that "Covid is tragic, but I feel safe here in this 'temple.'"
Echoing this sentiment is Min-wu. With his base nestled in lofty mountain ranges, he finds much resemblance between his reality and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, “the book about living in nature and reflecting on yourself preposterously a lot.” Pointing out the difficulty of sequestering oneself from the hubbubs of modernity nowadays, he ponders that “it is such a precious segment of my life being able to do this.”
Cancelled training and increasingly lax work hours begot “loads of free time.” Voracious reading has become an entrenched routine helping him discover his passion. Upon the upcoming completion of his service he plans to re-enroll in his university where he had always worked diligently, yet constantly befuddled when it came to choosing his major. “I’ve always studied what I was told to, not knowing what I really wanted to do,” he intones. By now, after much reflection à la Thoreau, he has made up his mind to major in computer science.
Thin Silver Lining
A chronically glacial institution staggering in the midst of increasing civilian awareness of and sensitivity to conscription issues, the Korean military has nevertheless proven highly regimented and efficient with the rapid inoculation of almost 95% of its personnel. Even though the military’s image has been inadvertently bolstered by the temporary alterations in the military workings and social restrictions induced by the virus, both ambling soldiers and aggrieved students look poised to return to normalcy as more people get jabbed. The cue seems nigh for the military to revert to a place “where you waste your time and get dumb,” as Chang-ha confides his pre-Covid perception of the military. That is, of course, unless it displays unprecedented flexibility in a post-Covid era.