[SPEAKOUT]Military service breeds contemptNot long ago someone asked me to describe my military service. Though I've never been to jail, I answered that the two probably share similarities.
Like all young Korean males in good health, I was obligated to serve two years and two months in the army. I had completed more than half the credits I needed to graduate from Sogang University when I left college in 1998. The financial crisis had hit my parents so hard they could no longer help with my tuition. My girlfriend offered no consolation. We broke up around this time, further motivating me to take care of my military requirement. In May 1999, I kissed my mother good-bye and went to Nonsan, near my home in Daejon, for six weeks of basic training. That was followed by three weeks of training with the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, or KATUSA, in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul. Finally, I was assigned to Tongduchon, not far from the Demilitarized Zone.
I had studied mass communications in college, but the army first made me a combat medic then abruptly a motor pool mechanic, even though I knew nothing about either field. I was given no spending money. Although I was working in the U.S. Army, I was paid as a member of the Korean Army. So my take-home pay came to 400 won a day, or 35 cents. Most days I couldn't afford a Coke. My Mom sent me what she could, but I hated accepting her money because I knew she had so little. I wanted to help my parents, but how could I on 35 cents a day?
By the time my two years in the army were over, I had been punished, yelled at and pushed around. I had taken a big step back intellectually, socially and emotionally. If I hadn't gone into the army, I would be graduated from college by now and would likely have started a career. Instead, I'm a student again who is struggling to regain what I learned before I put on a uniform.
My experience is no different from thousands of other young Korean males. and that's why things must change in Korea.
Military service breeds contempt and a host of other negative qualities while providing virtually no positive benefits. Nobody looks forward to the army and very few have anything pleasant to say about it afterward. Is it disloyal to hate military service? No. I love Korea and I deeply respect the freedom we have fought for. Still, I think if Korea wants a meaningful army, the country must change how it goes about getting one.
Two well-publicized cases in the last six months support this notion. Yoo Seung-joon a pop singer, and Oh Tae-yang, a devout Buddhist, each refused to join the army. Instead of attending basic training, Yoo went to the United States. Oh went to the National Human Rights Commission. Yoo wanted to make money. A conscientious objector, Mr. Oh didn't believe in killing. I couldn't blame either man. Nonetheless, Koreans criticized both men. Go into the army and take your punishment like everyone else, people said. Punishment. That's the army's image, so why would anyone like the army? And what are we being punished for, anyway?
Korea badly needs a voluntary army, not a compulsory army. Korea needs to offer much better benefits so young men will join on their own accord and serve enthusiastically. Instead of teaching recruits how to curse, the army should help them learn skills that could be useful in the regular world and assist this country. The army should consider utilizing a recruit's outside education -- what he had studied in school, for example -- and build on that.
Finally, Korea needs to pay a young soldier fairly. It's a job, after all. By altering the way it operates, by changing its image, the army will, I'm convinced, turn out better, more motivated soldiers.
As long as Korea makes the military obligation seem like a jail sentence, people will try to avoid serving their "time."
The writer is a mass communications student at Sogang University.
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