Service without a smileTen years have passed since democracy set its roots in Korea. The army that 10 years ago was the symbol of power has become a mere shadow of its former self in terms of the prestige that it once enjoyed in Korean society. Branded as the instigator of coup d'etats, it lost many officers in the clean-up implemented by the first democratic government, under former President Kim Young-sam.
The five years that followed under the current President Kim Dae-jung did not improve the army's situation, especially because the president's "sunshine policy" looked to make nice with North Korea, taking a less hostile position and de-emphasizing the army further.
As a result of the policies of the past 10 years, many officers complain that deteriorating conditions are forcing them to leave a place that they once thought would be their future.
"Many good officers that were really essential to us left the service during Kim Young-sam's reign," says Min Byung-don, a retired lieutenant general and former superintendent of the Korea Military Academy. "The most serious problem is that the army has been painted as a bad apple by the government, the press, and the presidents to such an extent that the public views the army with hostility now."
Today the army is also facing another, more serious problem than ever before because it has too many officers waiting to become the next general, provided one lasts that long. In 1992, the retirement age for majors was extended from 43 to 45. Consequently, the retirement age of lieutenant colonels went up from 47 to 53, while a full colonel had to wait until 56 instead of the age of 50 to put a star on his shoulders. Before the amendment, it took usually seven years to become a major. Now it takes 11 years to do the same. Toward the top, the waiting period is even worse ?16 years to become a full colonel are no longer good enough; at least 23 years are needed now.
The extension of the retirement age was brought in to provide mid-level officers a cushion so they did not need to leave at an age that made it hard to work in other professions. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it meant that fewer positions became available for an officer pool that stayed about the same. As a consequence, the longer waiting period for a promotion has made the army older at the field grade officers level.
Nowadays, a typical battalion commander is in his mid 40s, making it quite a task to keep up with the young soldiers. No wonder that bitter jokes abound these days, such as how instead of a command baton, a walking stick is needed now for commanders.
The quality of life in the army, for enlisted men and officers alike, has not changed that much in the last 10 years as well.
"The Japanese have three soldiers to a room," says one dismayed battalion commander. "The U.S. has two to four. China has nine people sharing one room. Compared to that, we have 30 to 40 people crammed like sardines in barracks that date back as old as the Japanese colonial days. The water supply is bad. Taking a shower is a luxury while you sleep in rooms that are blistering hot in the summer. When I think of my soldiers, I can't sleep at night. I can't ask them to endure it anymore."
The commander's own situation is not much better, as he lives in a small, 43-square-meter apartment with his wife and two children. As his children grew up, he and his wife had to sleep in the living room since the children started to demand their own rooms. "I still have it better than others," he says. "At least I can live together with my family. Other officers have to live apart from their families, but the government doesn't pick up the extra living costs."
The long waiting list on the promotion ladder is inflicting much financial hardship on the officers as well. A 40-year-old major could probably rise to a midlevel managerial position at a civilian company, with a higher income and more prestige.
Shin Kyung-sik, a retired lieutenant colonel who works now for a civilian company, emphasizes that without a decent quality of life, it is hard to attract quality personnel into the armed services. "In my entire army life, I never lived in an apartment bigger than 60 square meters," he said. People like Mr. Shin joined the army when it was considered a useful way to climb the social ladder, an honorable way to serve the country. There may have been little money, but there was prestige and pride. Now that those benefits are gone, he doubts whether quality personnel could be brought into the service. "Recently, a couple of my classmates got their first stars put on," he says. "It took 26 years to do that. If anyone knew the realities of a professional career in the armed services, I think it would be hard to motivate anyone to join."
The characteristics of the army organization make it hard for people to leave the army and try another path. In the past, selected personnel were allowed to enter the public sector service, but those measures stopped at the end of former President Roh Tae-woo's term. And a lack of a proper training system to prepare officers for the outside world leave officers virtually no choices for when they leave the service.
Many officers complain about the current pension system as well. Contrary to the United States, where the government pays the pension, here soldiers have to pay it out of their own pocket, and even the amount that gets paid out decreases if one decides to work another job after retirement.
Many officers also worry that the cold treatment that the army has received for the last decade has diminished its combat power and morale. Only recently, after nine years, has the military received a raise in their budget.
"If you ask me, it's like pissing on the land during a drought," says Lee Choong-suk, a retired major general. "The budget is always short and the modernization process is at a standstill."
Mr. Lee says that many of the field grade officers that make up the backbone of the Korean Army are absolutely fed up with the ongoing problems.
"Especially, officers at the lieutenant colonel and full colonel level are tired of their difficult living conditions," he says.
"The pain coming from the financial hardship that army families have to endure is enormous. To serve the country is not easy. One must have a vision. Right now, there is no vision at all for them in sight."
Portions of this article first appeared in Monthly JoongAng.
by Kwon Tae-dong