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[Weekender] Korea's reluctant reservists

April 8, 2016 - 17:06 By Yeo Jun-suk
Whenever former military officer Kim Jung-wook receives a letter from the Army requiring him to join a military drill as reservist, the 28-year-old office worker is nervous about how to bring it up with his boss.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m requesting a permission for time off,” Kim told The Korea Herald “Though no one has ever accused me of it, I am worried that my boss and teammates wouldn’t appreciate it because I am the only one who has served in the military from the team,” he said.

He is one of some 3 million men in South Korea’s reserve forces. Every man who finishes his mandatory service is classified as a member of the reserve forces and required to serve as a reservist for another eight years.

The eight-year service is divided into two categories: “mobilized” and “non-mobilized” training. The former requires the reserve forces to undergo a three-day training session, such as marksmanship training, at the unit that they had served with during active duty. They stay in the barracks throughout the training period.

The latter does not require the reservists to return to their previous units. Instead, they must undergo a six-hour reconnaissance drill in their local area and an eight-hour drill for three days at a nearby training ground. They can go home after the exercise.

Often, the two types of training have one thing in common: the constant tension between the trainee, who are former enlisted soldiers who had served in the military as part of mandatory duty, and the trainers, mostly former company or field grade officers who have made a career out of the military. 

Reservists head for their training. The Korea Herald

“It was like training the least motivated unit,” said a 47-year-old battalion commander for a reserve unit in Gangnam-gu, Seoul. “What I expected of them is a little sense of discipline and soldierly attitude, but maybe I am being too naive or old-fashioned,” he said.

When the former major arranged a recent training program with his two subordinates, he almost got into a clash with a reservist who refused to turn his cellphone off and listened to the music throughout.

While such incidents were common in the past, the situation has gradually improved, according to insiders.

With military tension rising high following North Korea’s cross-border provocations and nuclear and long-range rocket tests this year, an increasing number of reservists are publicizing their commitment to the service. Strings of posts were uploaded on popular social media with incumbent and former reservists vowing to fight for the country.

“I am so ready to fight,” said one of the posting under a picture of his reserve force uniform.

One of the others read, “I just completed my reserve forces training. I wish I wasn’t done with it just yet so that I could fight against the North.”

Buoyed by the latest trend, the Defense Ministry said last Friday that it would beef up the reserve training. The plan includes establishing a command dedicated to managing mobilization of the reservists and expanding reserve duties to female soldiers.

By Yeo Jun-suk (