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[Weekender] Military culture infuses throughout every part of society

On an ordinary weekday morning, throngs of executives line up by rank at the lobby of a sprawling glass building in Seoul that houses the headquarters of one of the country’s biggest family-run conglomerates.

They are awaiting the chairman, who is about to make his entrance in about half an hour. As he emerges through the door, a vacuum-like, fleeting stillness sweeps through the pack, followed by waves of deep bows from the waist.

In the evening, on the other side of town, a group of college students gathers at a nearby pork belly restaurant. They hold a welcoming ceremony for the new members of an a capella club, with two long rows of glasses filled with a blend of beer and soju, or “somaek.” A senior member shouts as he raises his glass, “All of those younger than me have got to drain their glasses in one gulp.”

The scenes epitomize shades of deep-rooted military culture that diffuses into nearly every part of South Korean society.

From the public and corporate sectors to academia, fields of arts and sports, juniors are better off when they toe the line without talking back to their bosses. Boot camp has long been a must for staff of all grades and newbies of any organization. “Lacking military discipline” is a universal expression used to scold subordinates.

“At our company, there were catchphrases to chant at the beginning and the end of executive meetings,” said Hong Ji-hyun, a 31-year-old who previously worked at another major corporation in Seoul.

“The catchphrases would change once in a while, one of them I remember was ‘Let’s be No. 1!’ And they said it was the chairman’s instruction.”

As the country increasingly embraces diversity, many aspects of the rigid, hierarchical culture have faded in line with the democratic progress following the demise of iron-fisted rule in 1980s.

But a military-style leadership still prevails in male-dominant areas. Remnants of military culture may live on in a traditionally Confucian society, some people say, even long after the two Koreas are reunited.

South Korean armed forces partake in winter training. (Ministry of National Defense)
South Korean armed forces partake in winter training. (Ministry of National Defense)

In a 2013 poll commissioned by Hankook Ilbo daily to SurveyMonkey, 610 out of 625 respondents, or 97.6 percent, said they have felt that military culture persists within organizations outside the barracks, including workplaces, schools and sports clubs.

Though largely deemed inevitable given the ongoing standoff with the North, the influence of Korea’s conscription system has become deeply embedded in all corners of society, often becoming a perennial source of gender discrimination.

The compulsory draft allows young men to not only prepare for a potential emergency on the peninsula but also to learn organized social life through strict military discipline.

In return, those who complete their service generally get extra credits when applying for a job, receive higher pay than their female colleagues, and climb up the ladder faster under the same conditions as women.

Such values as leadership, loyalty and perseverance are also required for women in order to stand out in the male-dominated society. Many successful female leaders have pushed their way through the top by putting work over everything else, staying later than their male competitors and exercising even more stringent discipline.

“I think the country’s overall workplace atmosphere is built on apprenticeship where juniors have to painstakingly follow the directives of their mentors just like you do in the Army,” Kim Chang-hwan, a 32-year-old former editor at a Seoul-based publishing house where the absolute majority of the staff were women and he was the only one who served in the military.

Across the sectors, the top brass still chiefly consist of people who either have firsthand experience in military dictatorship or the offspring of the elite from the era when men were even banned from growing their hair and women from wearing short skirts as part of the efforts to establish uniformity and discipline.

“There is certainly a bright side to the system -- you can quickly get professional know-how and tips and innately foster teamwork. But on the other hand, it could limit the scope of your thinking and your problem-solving ability. Or even if you manage to find your own methods, someone would say that’s wrong because it’s different from how they’ve done things.”

With the maturing of fast-paced society and women’s growing entry into leadership roles, there is a growing call among both old and young generations that the current shift away from military-style culture would only continue to take hold.

“In the past, the population was much less educated than now and the military provided one of the few pools of well-disciplined and trained human resources, while businesses, schools and other institutions courted retired officers to teach entry-level workers and refurbish management structure,” a government official in his 50s said.

“Things have significantly changed compared with when I started some 30 years ago, though there are still vestiges such as in document writing, reporting and even drinking culture. The trend will evolve, albeit gradually, toward pragmatism with generational changes at higher echelons.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (