Disclaimer: I am no expert when it comes to the ROK’s armed forces. I’m neither Korean nor have I served in the military. I decided to write about this here because I know that the 2-year mandatory service is a big part of a Korean man’s life, my boyfriend’s included. Everything that I’ll write here is based on his experiences (and a bit of my own research) so I cannot say that it holds true and factual for everyone. But it’s pretty close.
South Koreans take the mandatory Military Service very seriously. Many people may never fully understand its importance to their nation but we all have to bear in mind that South Korea is technically still at war with the North. There was never a peace treaty, only a cease-fire, and the NoKor’s emotionally unstable leaders can attack anytime. So no, it’s not like your ROTC or summer boot camp training and yes, your beloved Kpop idols/Korean actors HAVE to serve, lest they (and their families) want to be ostracized by their society forever.
The Korean boyfriend’s official dog tag.
When we were still dating, I asked him if I could have the other half of that dog tag, since it usually comes in pairs. He said he’d only give it to me if we become officially together! Well, now you know who’s keeping that one. *smiles*
- Able-bodied Korean men aged 18-35 are required to serve for two years, and they normally do so at age 20/21. Jimmy served from ’03-’05 when he was 21-23 (Korean age).
- The worst placement is the bases in the mountainous range in Eastern Korea – it’s cold and is facing the North directly. Jimmy’s base was at Gangwon-do (half of the province is with North Korea) and temperatures reach as low as -30 degrees on winter. Jimmy is a true-blue Gangnam boy who has never lived outside of Seoul and unlike other kids, he never had the chance to stay in the province for vacations. To say that he had a hard time in the camp is an understatement.
Whenever I’d ask him about his time in the military, he’d always say it’s hell and that he’d NEVER EVER want to be there again. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories even from other men, but what happens inside, really? And why is it so bad? First, we’ll share with you the basics – where they live, what they eat and wear. The details and the horrors of the training we’ll save for the 2nd part.
According to Jimmy, once you enter as a draftee, you will first be sent to houses in front of your boot camp, where you’ll spend about 2 days and you’ll be given your uniform. He was in the army (the most common, I guess) though there are many options such as the marines, air force, military police, etc. One of his barkadas, JC oppa was lucky enough to be in “civil service” and didn’t have to stay in a camp and pretty much just delivered military mail. Another one is an American citizen and didn’t have to enlist altogether.
That’s what Jimmy’s uniform looked like. He does not, however, look anything like Coffee Prince’s Gong Yoo (left) and Great Inheritance’s Kim Ji-hoon (right).
Basically, once they get their uniforms, all their personal belongings will be packed and sent back to their families. Everything that they’d own from that point on will be provided by the government, though once they get assigned to their camps, it won’t be as strict and they can receive packages from loved ones. The boyfriend said that the boots provided were the worst shoes he had worn ever. And they had to march in those for hours! For two years!
The first five weeks or so will be spent in the boot camp. Can you imagine? Young men, who had no prior major hardships in life being thrown into a physically tough and mentally exhausting training right away? Must be traumatizing!
Inside this building are some really terrified Korean youth, who’ve been deprived of their iPods and internet. Also, there are no women, except of the ahjummas in the kitchen.
Lecture hall inside the boot camp.
Poor MKBF spent his Christmas and New Year of ’03 and Chinese New Year of ’04 in the boot camp. T__T
Once the draftees are done with the boot camp, they are then sent to their respective bases. As I mentioned above, Jimmy was stationed in Gangwon-do, the hometown of Kim Hee-chul (lahlz). If you remember that scene in My Sassy Girl where they buried their letters under a tree, well, that spot is near their camp. It apparently became a tourist destination. Bases are not all “equal” and may vary from one place to another. Jimmy’s didn’t have an internet cafe but at least it had hot water and indoor plumbing. Also, I think football areas are a requirement in each base. According to him, he was one of the best players in the base and part of the Top 11. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
And if you’re complaining about your school dorm, check out their barracks:
Yes, that’s exactly where they sleep. Those are their mattresses folded under their cabinets.
Korean men say that military service barracks have a VERY distinct smell. A smell that’s not very pleasant, mind you. In fact, when Jimmy saw this image for the first time, he claimed that the smell was reeking out of the photo! He described it as “the smell of a bunch of men who just got back from a long day of physical work, full of sweat, taking their shoes off… in an enclosed room with minimal ventilation.” HOLY SHIT.
ALLOWANCE AND RECREATION:
Thankfully, those who are in service get a monthly allowance, which ranges from Php 2,500 when you enter as a private and about Php 3,600 when you’re about to leave as a sergeant. They also have vacations and days off, of course but most of their recreation, especially on a normal day after their “work” ends at 5pm involve playing foot ball, reading books and watching TV even though the channel is controlled by the sergeant.
Also, one of the boyfriend’s family members was the only male in his family and their father died when they were young. Hence, he was only required to serve for 6 months because he was technically considered the bread winner of the family.
Okay, this is actually what inspired me to make this blog post. Their food isn’t really THAT bad, especially since poor people in this country eat a lot less and much worse food. But the military service food is amusing! I wonder if I can try them sometime.
The normal, everyday meal served in stainless steel plate/trays. Kimchi is mandatory.
A pretty common way of eating when you’re out in field, training. Talk about communal food! Wait, is that a plastic bag?
Instant noodles eaten straight out of a foil pack. You just add hot water and eat it like a BAMF because cups are for wimps.
War food. Literally. This is what the government will provide the troops should a war break out. It is also served during their training so they get used to it, I guess.
Heating their food straight out of their official military lunch boxes. Wew.
Sunny side-up, anyone?
If you’d tell me that that’s the same case as say, the PMA, well, the difference is that these young men are there because they have to, not because they want to. I believe Singaporeans have mandatory service as well.
Military service is a very sensitive topic in Korea. It’s apparently on the same level as sex scandals and in fact, a famous rapper, MC Mong, was recently sentenced to 6 months in prison for draft dodging (it has since been reduced to 120 hours of community service). To be honest with you, I have no idea how Korean men get trough it but apparently, they come out tougher and with more tolerance for hardships and seniority, which is a big factor in Korean society. Military service is almost like a 2-year, brutal coming-of-age ceremony, one that gives men a sense of honor and pride once they’re done with it.
I’m really thankful that I met him AFTER he had done his service. It must suck to be in a relationship with someone who has to or has just enlisted. Jimmy really hated his experience in the camp but whenever I ask him if he wants his sons to go through it, his only reply is “Are you kidding me? Of course!” And he says that with conviction.
Up next, the crazy but necessary training that the soldiers go through. Please watch out for part two and hope you enjoyed and learned from this somehow.
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