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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Author Since: Sep 20, 2018

  1. In the meantime, a lot of things changed. Soldiers are now allowed to use their smartphones during their free time and the minimum of service time has been reduced to 1 year and six months (depending on what military branch).

  2. Let’s ask ourselves one question. Who is in charge of South Korea’s military? Men or women?
    I’ll give you a hint, it’s men. As the ones in charge, men have decided women are not subject to conscription. So instead of blaming women, feminism or some other vague concept perhaps it’s time to reshape the future.

    To all of you saying this is unfair, I will now quote John F Kennedy in reminding you “life is not fair.”

  3. I'll start by saying I'm an Israeli woman currently serving in the idf, here it's mandatory for both men and women to serve in the idf for two years (women) or two years and eight months (men), but if you have mental or physical problems that prevent you from enlisting you can choose to do a sort of 'community service' for two years or do nothing (which I personally think it's very selfish, usually people do that on porpose to get a headstart in life). From what I understand, in S. Korea only men have mandatory service and women don't, and if you can't enlist you have to do some kind of public service for two years (or jail? I don't get people who would prefer going to jail than volunteering🤨)…
    What I don't get is why women aren't supposed to do the same (two years of public service) because, you know, feminisem… Here in Israel the difference in time served (eight months more for men) disturbs me and I think it should be the same time for both men and women
    Hope someone can enlighten me…

  4. You lack patriotism, being in the military teach you to serve your country, develop discipline and not complain about simple training. And also militray prevents you for being a BTS gay

  5. Asian countries have less autonomy n freedom. They prefer to be control by the autocratic system n adhere to the old fashion philosophy n politic. This is especially true in s korea where the old fashion outdated confucianism n its autocratic way of governing the nation n society still being practice as part of their identity. S korea is not juch different from n korea – less autonomy n trapped in idiotic confucianist ideology

  6. Am i the only one who really wanted to see how they serve in the military because im really worried for seokjin…BTS already go thru us dirty minded army freaks XD and JIN HAS TO GO THRU IT FIRST AND TO BE IN AN ACTCUAL ARMY TO!?

  7. South Korea is portrayed as this ''genuine democracy'' in contrast to the ''communist'' north. In reality the south is a deeply flawed democracy with big money controlling politics, much like the USA. Conscription into the army is wrong as it forces people to serve a nation that only look after the interests of the class who owns the politicians. Corruption and capitalist exploitation are hard facts, this is what the South Korean Army defends. Between 1948 and 1990, the military was a key pillar of a dictatorial regime. A military junta which ruled after general Park Chung-hee (a Japanese collaborator) took power. The Republic of Korea remained an authoritarian anticommunist state until the military was forced to allow free elections after the end of the Cold War.

  8. 대한민국 육군 복무신조
    우리의 결의
    우리는 국가와 국민에 충성을 다하는 대한민국 육군이다.
    하나, 우리는 자유민주주의를 수호하며 조국통일의 역군이 된다.
    둘, 우리는 실전과 같은 훈련으로 지상전의
    승리자가 된다.
    셋 우리는 법규를 준수하고 상관의 명령에
    넷, 우리는 명예와 신의를 지키며 전우애로
    굳게 단결한다.

  9. Rather eat Honey Soy Fried chicken, watch the new KPop videos, get smchacccked off of Soju, and buy some off white then put up with being slapped around in ROK Army. Those boys get funked up for crazy ish by their superiors

  10. We had a katusa serving with us in S. Korea…we had several. They got rank based on time, not merit. They gave lesser ranked katusas HELL…one blew his brains out on a firing range. For those who don't know :Korean Augmentation To Us Army. KATUSA The old people who were children during the korean war loved us, they KNEW what they had been saved from and what our role there kept from happening to them. To attack S. korea, was to attack the U.S. and therefore peace was maintained. The college kids are the ones who don't know and they will protest our being there claiming we are keeping the country apart. They would be wise to listen to their elders. kim doesn't want to nuke the U.S. He want's to be able to threaten it if we get involved in his invasion plans of the southern part of the peninsula. He can wage a war next door and possibly win, but a protracted war with anyone else would be impossible and suicide. That gas room is to teach you the importance of getting that mask on fast..in the most real way possible. CS gas will just hurt a little bit..nerve agents are kinda permanent.