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[Kim Seong-kon] South Korea: A country of veterans

Feb. 1, 2023 - 05:46 By Korea Herald

In the US and Japan, men are not required to fulfill mandatory military duty. Therefore, both Americans and Japanese find military life irrelevant to them. In the case of America, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations has recently revealed that presently there are 1.3 million US soldiers on active duty, which consist of only 0.5 percent of the American population.

In South Korea, where military service is compulsory, things are radically different. Except for teenagers, nearly all Korean men, young and old, are ex-soldiers, that is to say, military veterans. In her celebrated poem, “Song for Soldiers,” Poet Moon Chung-hee writes, “All young men in this land, / Once went to the DMZ in military uniform, / Bearing a gun against their brothers in the North, / Learning intense yearning and the bitter-sweet agonies of life.” The poem goes on to say that therefore all Korean women fall in love with a man who once was a soldier. This perspective makes South Korea a unique country.

They say that men change completely while serving in the army. Indeed, once they put on a military uniform, men are transformed into a completely different being and stay that way thereafter. That is why there goes a saying in the military, “The change is forever.” Indeed, men learn valuable lessons and acquire indispensable experiences in the army. Besides, there are soldiers’ codes and values that can last a lifetime.

For example, the US Army values are “loyalty,” “duty,” “respect,” “selfless service,” “integrity” and “personal courage.” The British Army’s values comprise “courage,” “discipline,” “respect for others,” “integrity,” “loyalty” and “selfless commitment.” According to a website, “10 Qualities of Soldiers We Can Inherit,” a soldier‘s qualities consist of “lawfulness,” “professionalism,” “strong focus” and “patience,” in addition to the above-mentioned virtues.

According to Empire Resume, “What It Takes to be in the Military” includes “discipline,” “leadership skills,” and “empathy.” Empathy means “understanding the motivations of others and learning active listening skills.” The recruiting slogan of the US Marine Corps, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” can also be a lifetime milestone for ex-marines, together with their motto, “Semper Fidelis,” which means “always faithful.”

If military veterans are those who have those virtues, then Korean society, which comprises mainly veterans, is supposed to be full of people who have loyalty, responsibility, and integrity. As veterans, all Korean men must have a soldier’s courage, empathy, and respect for others, too. They must be lawful, disciplined, and patient, as well. In addition, they must value professionalism, selfless service, and selfless commitment. Korean men must have learned those values and qualities while serving in the ROK army.

Embarrassingly however, the reality of Korean society is quite the opposite. Presently, our society is suffering from a serious lack of integrity, empathy, and respect for others. Korean men frequently exhibit antagonism, impatience, and impetuousness. They do not listen to different voices or respect different opinions. As a result, our society is currently divided into two antagonizing polarities.

Such a phenomenon is especially true with our politicians. Many people agree that it is hard to find integrity, lawfulness, or professionalism among today’s Korean politicians. They do not seem to have the virtues of selfless service and selfless commitment, either. To make matters worse, our politicians do not take responsibility for their words and deeds. Consequently, our country is suffering such chaotic political disruptions as we are now witnessing in despair.

Where have all the virtues they had learned from their military lives gone? Did they abandon all of them when they took off their uniform and became civilians again? If not, is it a fact that many of our politicians managed to evade the draft somehow and so did many Korean men? Indeed, it is an inscrutable Sphinx’s riddle.

In the past, a foreigner who had observed Korean homes wrote that it looked like Korean women married a military commandant. That means some older generation Korean men mistook his home as a military boot camp and tried to discipline his wife and children as if they were obedient subordinates. If what they learned from the army was just dominance and obedience, to give orders and to execute them only, rather than the soldiers’ virtues stated above, it would be pathetic and shameful.

Of course, today’s young people are different from the older generation. As such, Korean society should change radically so that people have decency, compassion, and esteem for others. It should also be a society of selfless commitment and service, in which men are patient, honorable, and courageous.

Moon concludes her poem, “Years later, when women encounter, / Their old flame in civilian suits, / In the sunset of their middle-aged life, / On the road of no return, / They silently cry a little, shy and embarrassed, / Finding a rustier barrier than the DMZ blocking the path of life.”

Maybe one of the reasons for Korean women’s crying is that they could not find any of the admirable virtues of a military veteran in their civilian-clothed old flame.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.