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[Kim Myong-sik] Why keep your son from learning in uniform?

Since the National Assembly hearing on the appointment of high government officials started in 2000, we have watched lawmakers use a common checklist for individual qualification, helped by the media. The top item of inquiry is whether the appointee and his children fulfilled the compulsory military service. Next come the questions about any speculative investment in real estate by the appointee’s family, possibly with false residence registration, and involvement in any plagiarism scandal if he is from academia. 

Again in the hearings on the chiefs of three important government offices President Park Geun-hye appointed last week, lawmakers will be particularly interested in the nominees’ records of military service, or lack thereof. Members sitting in pertinent committees will harshly chastise the appointees for anything that they fail to clearly explain. Spectators are often tempted to ask the same questions to the inquiring lawmakers.

This time, it has already been reported that Hwang Chan-hyun, named to head the Board of Audit and Inspection, had been exempted from military duty because of a high degree of myopia, while Kim Jin-tae for the highest prosecution office had served as a homeland guard (the so-called “bangwi”) for a year as he was not qualified for active duty. Kim’s son is said to have been exempted from military service for a physical dysfunction.

Each one has a different reason or justification for not being recruited into the nation’s defense forces. And the Republic of Korea’s total population of 50 million should have more than enough manpower resources to maintain the 600,000-man standing army, hence a certain portion of young men have to be spared from wearing combat uniforms. But the media and NGOs provide various statistics that reveal an ominous fact: The proportion of exclusion is much larger in the upper echelon of society than the national average.

In other words, there are more people who were exempted from military duty among those in socially privileged positions, namely Assemblymen, government ministers, university professors and legal professionals, than among the rest of the population. (The percentage in judges and prosecutors is a little higher as some of them served as military judge advocates.) There was a saying that “few young men in Gangnam go to hyeon-yeok,” or active military service, pointing to the correlation between social ranking and conscription.

It has been shown that absence from military service, be it in the form of legitimate exemption for poor health, a home-staying bangwi service or a criminal conscription dodging, is often a family tradition. We have seen some appointees to high offices or candidates for elections having a hard time in Assembly hearings for their non-military service as well as for their sons’ suspected draft evasion for one flimsy reason or another.

Lee Hoi-chang, the presidential candidate in the 1997 and 2002 elections, is remembered for having had no male member of his extended family, including in-laws, duly complete military service, while he himself served as an Army law officer. He lost many votes because of a false accusation of foul play in the process of getting his eldest son disqualified from conscription, but the outcome could have been different if someone in the family had actually been in the ranks of the ROK Army.

It is a pity that many fathers who have not experienced military service themselves do not know well the true meaning and value of the life in uniform and thus try hard to keep their children out of the barracks. Conversely, fathers who had served with the armed forces are rather anxious or at least not reluctant to send their sons to recruitment camps when the time comes. It is because they are aware that what a highly profitable investment it is to spend two to three years of one’s youth in frontline bunkers, inside rumbling tanks and aboard patrol boats in choppy waters.

Your son not only learns how to fire a gun and hit the target, to fold his blankets and clothing in perfect squares, and clean his soiled boots to shine like a mirror, but he is trained to survive in the extreme conditions alone or with colleagues. Out in the field, young men help each other with nothing but their own hands and hearts and feel the sense of pure camaraderie. One stands night guard for an extra hour to give his colleague more time to sleep. With limited rations during a maneuver exercise, the good soldier feigns not being hungry to share more for the rookie in his squad.

During the 1950s and ’60s after the war, food and materials were constantly in short supply in the ROK Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Young recruits became tougher and stronger men as they lived through all kinds of adversities under rigorous discipline. Out of the barracks after three years, they were the best fighters in the industrial front which was extended to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Tens of thousands went to the Ruhr mines of Germany to earn foreign money and remit it home, as did their contemporaries in other parts of the world.

That the Republic of Korea owes much of what it is today to the mental and physical tenacity the military developed in our youths does not mean to counter the arguments over the impact of “military culture” in our society. In this age of smartphones and computer games, things may not be exactly the same, yet there is the indisputable need to recognize and appreciate the role our armed forces continue to play in sustaining the nation’s social and economic dynamism, outside their original defense and security mission.

The upcoming National Assembly hearing sessions should be an occasion to remind everyone that the compulsory military service is not the price Korean men pay to open individual careers but a precious time for spiritual nourishment to carry themselves through the challenges of life. I only hope that all the questioning lawmakers have this awareness from their own service experiences.

The cold season is coming. When the first snowflakes fall in Myeong-dong to the delight of strollers, the hills of eastern frontline must already have snow about a foot deep. Patrolling along the barbed-wire fence in icy cold wind thrashing against their bare cheeks, our young defenders should know that they are having the most precious time in their whole lives.

By Kim Myong-sik 

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. ― Ed.
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