A barely decent priest

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A barely decent priest

The South Korean adult male must comply with his constitutional duty to perform military service of around two years depending on the branch. Everyone goes through it, but parents still dread seeing their sons go off to the military. A year and half ago, that day arrived for my son. We had our final meal in a restaurant near his training camp. I watched as he fiddled with his food with gloom and anxiety on his face. I knew how he felt. He was brave, and said goodbye with a forced smile and jolly wave. But my mind was not at ease watching him walk away. Anyone who has been there would know what I am saying.

These days he gets leave, and he looks much more comfortable. He’s even gotten used to the icy cold temperatures during his night guard duty at the frontline border, where he is stationed. He jokes that life in the military is nothing like “Real Man,” a popular reality show where entertainers go around different branches and camp out to have military experiences.

Our sons become real men in their military camps. Most of them accept the labor, hard training and discipline as a kind of growing pain. The military has become more modern and yet service is still tough - and not merely for conscripts. The life of a career soldier is hardly easy. Commanders must take turns with common soldiers to keep 24-hour guards at border outposts. Among tank troops, senior officers in their 40s all suffer knee and waist problems because they must frequently clamber in and out of tanks. Commissioned officers must move around every two years, making life equally hard for their families.

Most of these military men have not chosen their career for money, reputation or rewards. They take pride in their service to the nation. We rarely hear about theft or corruption in the military these days.

People who are not happy about the conscription system are critical of the military. They raised a hoopla upon hearing allegations about the military’s cyber command headquarters being mobilized by the National Intelligence Agency to meddle in last year’s presidential campaign in favor of the ruling party candidate. They sneered that North Korean soldiers defected to South Korea by knocking on the door of outposts on the southern side even without being noticed crossing the border. They criticized senior appointments for demonstrating regional favoritism. They rag on the military every chance they get.

Cynicism abounds because many people in high places somehow dodged military service or manage to get their children exempted. Young women joke that they won’t date a guy who served in the military because it shows that his family isn’t rich or powerful enough to get him out of the draft.

Thinking and speech are free in this country and cynicism is not a crime. But we must not cross the line. We should never take the side of North Korea, which threatens to wipe South Korea off the map whenever it can. No matter how displeased we are with our government, we should not blurt out those words. They wound parents who have sons living in uniform and under the threat of North Korea - not to mention the ones that actually died in North Korean attacks.

A comment by a senior priest from a progressive Catholic group has enraged thousands of parents. Rev. Park Chang-shin, a member of the liberal Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, made remarks during a Mass in North Jeolla Province that expressed contempt of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border in the Yellow Sea. “What if the Korea-U.S. joint military drills continue on an island near the controversial Northern Limit Line? What should North Korea do? They should shoot. And that was the shelling on Yeonpyeong Island.”

Park’s supporters said he was simply explaining North Korea’s motive for the attack. His real purpose was to criticize the administrative interference in the last presidential election.

But another side of his remark is a tone advocating for North Korea and its military attack, and a distinct view of the nation he lives in. When Park said North Korea had to shoot, did he ever think of the feelings of the families or friends of the victims?

Parents of every son in this nation are hurt by Park’s careless speech. A priest whose duty is to save the souls of the weak is, more or less, confessing that he has lost his sense of duty. American writer Mark Twain once said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” We live in a divided society with different faiths - and different ideas of decency.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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