The Terrifying Truth About Mandatory Service

I’m not looking forward to serving in the army. Even though I haven’t served yet, I know a lot about it. The strictness of the program makes me afraid of how older trainees will treat me. And I’m sure I am not the only one. Many Koreans would go so far as to say they would not go back into the army even for a million dollars.

South Korean law requires every male citizen to attend military training and serve for 18 to 21 months, with the amount of time depending on which department in which you choose to serve. People sign up for a specific department: marine, airforce, or army. Male Korean citizens receive a letter on January 1st of the year they turn 18, requiring them to enlist. It is truly a depressing moment when one opens the letter and reads the instructions about completing the required health checks run by the government.

However, there are ways people find their way out of this hell: some get dual citizenship and then give up their Korean one. Athletes are exempt from going when they earn a gold medal at the Asian Games, or a bronze medal or higher at the Olympics. In extreme cases, people go through gender reassignment surgery, self-inflict severe injuries, or flee the country and never go back.

Although perceptions of military service in Korea is that it’s harsh, some people say, “Military service has gotten so much better these days, you will be fine.” Many are often influenced by TV shows that try to romanticize the idea of it. However, many people do not know or think much about the terrifying truth behind what seems like a patriotic act. Trainees are required to swim in ice-cold water in the mornings. They also have to withstand the CS gas chamber, in which all trainees are required to endure breathing in tear gas, which can cause serious eye and respiratory pain, bleeding, possible blindness, and irritate the skin.

In addition to the rigorous training, the culture of mandatory service can create a hell-like environment. Korean hierarchy seems like it is perhaps the most extreme in military service. Older or higher ranked trainees often give younger or newer trainees a hard time. Newer trainees get their freedom taken away, and are ordered around and told how to behave.

Moreover, when people enlist in military service, they are required to use a certain type of formal Korean. Since this type of language deviates from standard Korean, trainees often find it hard to get the hang of it.

On the bright side, the food is great. They provide you with nutritious yet delicious meals. They have a place named PX, short for Post Exchange, which sells all sorts of snacks and other commodities. PX also exists on other military installations around the world.

Although it is my patriotic duty to attend military service, I find it upsetting that I will spend almost 21 months serving while my classmates from Blair will be at college.

(copyright 2019 Joseph Min)

Joseph Min

Joseph Min is a Junior from South Korea.