What It's Like To Serve In South Korea's Mandatory Military Service
South Korea requires all of its male citizens to serve in the military for two years. Here’s what that experience is like.
Footage courtesy of Goyang TV, 2012
Following is a transcript of the video.
The hardest part was when I and my group had to go into this gas-filled room.
My name is Gene Kim, and I served in the South Korean military for 2 years.
The law requires every male to serve the military, and it is extremely hard to get out of it. If you purposely evade the military duty, you will get jail time.
The service is mandatory mainly because our relationship with North Korea. After things got intensified after the Korean War, there was a need for an active force for the South Koreans, so the military can always be ready.
I served the Korea military between the years of 2009 and 2011. Before the military, I was living in New York. I decided to go because I had to get it over with it at some point.
At the time I did my military service, I hated it.I just hated every moment being in there, trapped in that isolated society. And I just waited for my time to pass.
I haven’t seen a single person who really wanted to be there, who was enthusiastic to be there. People generally want to avoid the military because, I think, of the forcefulness of it. Compared to the US, where the military is voluntary, and you can pursue it as a career, in Korea, 2 years of service is mandatory, and everyone is forced to do it.
You’re living your free life and then suddenly isolated from the rest of the society. You have no contact. You can’t fill your cell-phone addiction there. And you’re basically sacrificing 2 years of your youth for the nation.
So, on the first day when you enter the military. As soon as you enter this training base, you meet these instructors that train you for 5 weeks on from there. They intentionally try to intimidate you, try to scare you, in order to make you into a soldier.
This 5 weeks of training was one of the most intense experiences I had. You’re not even a private at this moment. You are a trainee. The training is very intense. You are yelled at constantly. You don’t have a voice there. You can only do what you’re told to do and nothing else.
You learn to move very fast. When you’re ordered something, you have to run to get it, you have to run to do it. And if you hesitate, you get picked on for that. If you get around 5 minutes of rest, then you’re happy with that. You re-learn things that you thought you already knew. There’s a certain way to eat. There’s a certain way to stand. There’s a certain way to talk to people. There’s a certain way to do everything in the military.
One of the most memorable trainings that I did was this training called “화생방 훈련.” Which is to prepare soldiers to defend against a chemical attack. The hardest part was when I and my group had to go into this gas-filled room.
And you enter the room with your gas mask on, and there’s also an instructor there with a gas mask on. He eventually orders you to put off the gas mask. And when you’re exposed to this gas it doesn’t have long-term effects on you, but anywhere that’s exposed would hurt like hell. It feels like a thousand needles just pinching on to you and grabbing onto you.
And when you inhale this gas, it feels like you’re suffocating. Basically, you can’t breathe. It’s just chaos in that tiny room. Everyone’s grabbing onto each other. Everyone’s rolling on the floor. There was this one guy. He ran to the door trying to get out, but there was a guard there who prevented that. And it was total chaos.
After your 5 weeks of training, you’re relocated to your battalion. So, this is your home from now on. You would stay there for your private to sergeant life. From day one to the end of your service, you hear a lot about North Korea from the officials.
They designate the North Korean military as our enemy. This was the first time when I learned that North Korea has invaded South Korea even after the truce multiple times.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been brainwashed, but now I’m convinced that they have the capability and will to do a lot of damage to the Korean Society. There’s always a potential that the North Koreans can Invade us and the military’s trying to prepare for that.
Looking back at the experience, I think I gained a few things. There’s a saying in the military, “If you can’t make it work, make it work.” I learned that if you really put your will and just do it, then I can really achieve…I feel like I can achieve anything.
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