Life gets better for citizen soldiers

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Life gets better for citizen soldiers

A month ago, a phone call informed me that my time had come. Like a good soldier, I am aware that I can be beckoned for reserve training at any time. I was surprised by the call, but also prepared.
A few days later at a checkpoint just before 0800 hours, I confront two soldiers -- friendly forces. I fall in line behind other men, who, accept for their uniforms, appear to be anything but soldiers. They sport pony tails, pierced ears, yellow hair, casual slouches and easy gaits. I could hardly imagine them as defenders of freedom, but ostensibly the reason they are queuing at this checkpoint is to protect their right to individual expression.
At each workplace there is a captain, or yebigun jungdaejang, in charge of coordinating reservists’ training. The only time you talk to him is when he tells you to report for military training. My call came from Kim Young-gyu. “Right. I will be there,” I remember saying to the him, knowing that my life could be made very inconvenient if I did not comply. Six months in prison or a fine of 2 million won ($1,739) are the other options. Yes, I am surprised -- but prepared.
On the designated day, a Monday, I took subway Line 2 to Gangbyeon Station and grabbed a taxi from there. Wearing a backpack and the uniform I received upon finishing my active service, I stared into the window at the reflection of other passengers. I was just part of a crowd taking the subway on a morning commute to a job for which I would be paid nothing.
At the check point, I am greeted with “seonbenim.” The active duty soldiers are respectful. Seonbenim refers to someone who has graduated from college and is established in the workforce, in other words someone who has served his mandatory service in the Korean Army.
As I joined another group of men walking about 20 meters to the bivouac area, I thought back to several active duty soldiers I spotted on the train. At least that part of my life, the long marches and daily training, are behind me. Another thing I would not have to face is the way reserve training used to be.
Korean reservists were once associated with lots of drinking and card games played to kill time. Stories of a distracted reservist leaving his rifle at a coffee shop after a surreptitious visit for refreshments were standard humor. But none of that happened during my training last year, and frankly I am hoping on this mission for something other than a 10 o’clock curfew after a long day fighting imaginary battles against North Korea’s army of 1.2 million and its 7.4 million reservists. The Republic of Korea maintains an active duty force of 690,000, augmented by 3 million back-up forces.
Nine tents placed in single file is our home for the next four days. A pole flying a South Korean flag marks a building where personal belongings are stored and rifles distributed.
A loudspeaker blares. All reserve forces are to muster at 1000 hours in front of the barracks to launch the four-day exercise. Most of the days consist of marksmanship and training according to each reservist’s speciality, which was assigned during active duty. Misfits, or those whose specialty is not included in the training, are dropped into any slot available, be it infantry rifleman or medic. We are all wheezy civilians now so precautions are taken: Drills are conducted with the utmost regard for life and limb and ammunition is issued only at the firing range.
I receive the standard rifle refresher course and updates on the army’s new internal computer network as part of my administrative specialty. I also learn how to connect fuel pipes. As someone who seldom lifts anything heavier than the air above my fingers as I punch my computer keyboard, grappling with fuel pipes hurt my pride because the pipes won. Firing the rifle was fun. Koreans do not own guns, so target practice is like an exotic sport. And the computer courses dovetail with my white-collar lifestyle. Two out of three thumbs ups, not bad, considering I hated my time in the army.
Cadences are not a former soldier’s fondest memory. Forgetting is one way to forgive the government for taking a chunk out of your life. The army expects its citizen soldiers to be more of the former and less of the latter, so men on active duty and career officers are there to hold our hands, so to speak, as we stumbled through the marches.
After a few days we all realize this is not the army we once knew. Han Chung-ho, an investment banker, who recently completed the last of the seven annual training stints required of reservists, agrees that things have changed. “When I used to take part in these exercises, I would drink late into the night and play cards,” Mr. Han says. “There is definitely more discipline now. The training is more thorough and in terms of combat effectiveness I would say it has improved.”
Off-duty chatter reveals that a change has taken place in the life of the active duty soldier as well. Park Se-geun, a private first class, is a member of the team responsible for keeping our tent in order. He is asked repeatedly about guta, hazing of enlisted men by soldiers of higher rank. At the barracks entrance I had noticed a sign that reads: There is no future for those who assault! Similar signs are nailed to the latrine walls. Mr. Park promptly answers “No,” causing some heads to snap to attention.
“Come on you can tell us,” says Lim Hyeon-wook, a designer for the Korea Economic Daily, who served in an infantry unit when he was on active duty.
“Yeah, don’t fool us,” says Song Cheol-young, who spent his active duty as a cook.
Mr. Park does not waver, shaking his head from side to side, emphasizing his response.
I could not resist pressing the offensive. “Can you read a book inside the barracks? Can you, a private, take a nap when you are not on duty?” Mr. Park says he is free to relax whenever he is on his free time. Then he says he heard those stories from his gocham, or higher ranking conscript. He assures us that practices have changed.
I continue my bombardment: “You can go to the px anytime you want?”
“Yes,” Mr. Park says.
Finally, someone in the back of the tent says, “But that cannot be fun if you are a sargeant!”
Others in the tent nod their head. Reaching the rank of sergeant use to mean acquiring the power to regulate lower ranking men’s daily comings and goings and have things done for you.
“It’s not like that. Now everyone does his own work,” Mr. Park says.
I ask corporal Cho Seok-hyeong, another tent custodian, whether Mr. Park correct.
“I never had to shine anyone’s boots but my own,” he says. All the other conscripts I interrogated respond in a similar fashion. It seems that the army has finally woken up.
One difference between the Korean army and, for example, the United States armed forces is that in the Korean army lower ranking conscripts salute soldiers of higher rank, although they are not officers. With the salute comes little privileges. Becoming a sergeant bestows the right to determine what television programs will be watched inside the barracks.
Another good thing is that deaths and injuries involving reservists have decline over the years.
“We know it’s not easy for civilians to train when they have other lives. Hence that is why we are trying to make it as easy as possible. We have placed emphasis on the quality of training and safety. I think people have come to understand the importance of reserve training and they are more cooperative,” says Kim Ki-beom, a major at the Ministry of National Defense.

by Brian Lee
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