SOLDIERS IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea’s conscripted soldiers are well-trained and well-disciplined. They go through six weeks of basic training and are trained not to retreat and regroup. Training includes martial arts drills, practice sessions in hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers are required wake up and go to bed early and salute their superiors when they are on and off duty,
Military pay is minimal and barracks life is harsh. In the early 2000s, soldiers were probably paid around US$20 month, money that was mostly spent on cigarettes. In 1996, laws were passed forbidding soldiers from possessing pagers, pay phones, credit cards, bankbooks and limiting their access to entertainment spots such as dining rooms and laundromats. In their free time they hang out, lift weights and play ping pong.
Soldiers carry M4 assault rifles. Rules have been passed forbidding hazing and beatings of enlisted men, a practice that was often used to discipline soldiers. There have been serious incidents that left soldiers dead but the practice probably still endures in some form. The average monthly salary for a corporal was raised 15 percent from 135,000 won (US$125) to 155,000 won (US$142) in 2014.
All officers and enlisted personnel were closely supervised and had to obey strict security regulations that limited their contacts with civilians, including their own families. All military personnel were provided with food, clothing, housing, and medical services. A variety of entertainment and recreational programs were organized on military installations to reduce boredom and promote the physical health and morale of service personnel. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
The rank and grade structure of the three services corresponded, with minor exceptions, to that of the United States forces, as did the correlation between rank and responsibility. In peacetime, the army and air force were each commanded by a four-star general; a lieutenant general commanded the marines, and an admiral commanded the navy. *
Recruitment of Personnel in the South Korean Armed Forces
All males, except for a small percentage of individuals considered physically or socially undesirable for military service, could be drafted into the army. In 1990 there were 407,000 males nineteen years of age who were required to register for military service. Approximately 9.2 percent of these young men were rejected for conscription for one of the following reasons: having a physical or mental disability; possessing a criminal record; being an orphan; and being born out of wedlock or having one parent who was not a South Korean citizen. Conscripts were required to have at least an elementary school education; 77 percent of those drafted had at least a high school education. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
The Military Manpower Agency was responsible for assigning recruits to the army, navy, marines, the Korean Augmentation of the United States Army (KATUSA), and the combat police units of the Korean National Police. Recruits could request assignment to a particular service and were assigned based on their education, technical skills, and physical condition. About 85 percent of eligible recruits were drafted for periods of between thirty and thirty-six months. Candidates for the KATUSA program were required to be high school graduates with some English-language training. In 1990 approximately 5,000 men in KATUSA served with the United States Army units in South Korea. In 1990 the air force was an all-volunteer force.*
The conscription system was flexible and allowed most young men to plan their service in a way that would promote their individual career goals. High school graduates who had been accepted into a college or technical school or who were attending such schools were granted deferments. Conscripts with good education records and aptitudes suited to particular military specialties were selected to be trained as specialists in combat support branches such as signals, ordnance, and engineers. Even conscripts assigned to combat, however, were encouraged to take classes during their terms of duty to prepare for employment when they left the service.*
The army, navy, and air force each had a full range of recruit training centers, schools for technical military occupational specialties, and officer training courses. Army recruits were transported from provincial induction centers to one of the Second Army's recruit training centers for basic training. Each branch of the army had one or more schools that offered curricula for enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers. The large number of schools and the diversified training programs available to servicemen supported the army's need for skilled personnel to use, maintain, repair, and resupply combat forces during wartime. The air force had schools for pilots, air technicians, communication and electronics specialists, aircraft maintenance specialists, and air traffic controllers. The navy had its own schools oriented to the needs of the three fleets and the marine corps.*
Officers and Noncommissioned Officers
Officers were graduates of army, navy, or air force service academies, reserve officer training cadet programs offered at civilian colleges, or were recruited from enlisted personnel for selected short-term service in noncombat occupational billets. More than 90 percent of the field-grade officers chosen to command combat units at battalion and higher levels were graduates of the Korea Military Academy (in the case of the army), the Air Force Academy, or the Naval Academy. Applicants were chosen on the basis of their academic records, performance in competitive examinations, physical condition, and dedication to the mission of the armed forces. Each academy offered a fouryear curriculum to provide the cadet with a bachelor's degree and practical military skills. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
Graduates of the military academies were required to serve ten years in the military and made up 5 percent of the newly commissioned officers each year. Approximately 40 percent of the new second lieutenants were commissioned from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) after two years' training and a two-year, three-month obligation. Another 40 percent of the new second lieutenants were from the Third Military Academy, which had a twenty- to thirty-six week training course. The remaining 15 percent were directly commissioned specialists, including personnel in the medical corps, judge advocates, and chaplains. Most of the recruits of the Third Military Academy were newly graduated from junior colleges or regular colleges. At one time the Third Military Academy was itself a two-year college. Historically, most of the ROTC officers left after completing their obligation, but the graduates of the Third Military Academy often stayed on to fieldgrade rank and were the dominant source of commission at that rank.*
Advanced individual training for officers was provided at the Army's Command and General Staff College, the National Defense College, and military training institutes in other countries. The Command and General Staff College prepared selected field-grade officers for command and staff duties at division, corps, and army levels. The National Defense College trained a limited number of selected senior officers of the three services and some civilian government officials for the highest command and staff positions.*
Each army branch, as well as the air force, navy, and marine corps, was responsible for selecting NCOs for training in their occupational specialty. Those selected were required to reenlist for two to seven years, depending on the availability of replacements in their branch. Army staff sergeants were selected from civilian applicants and eligible enlisted personnel who had completed the required courses of studies in branch schools. The navy recruited petty officers through examination at the time of conscription. After finishing basic training, candidates were trained for their duties in a branch school. The air force followed a procedure similar to the navy's. Combat marines were sent to army schools for NCO training, whereas marines in service branches usually attended navy schools.*
Barrack Life for South Korean Army Soldiers
Reporting from one of the nicer training facilities, Seth Robson wrote in Stars and Stripes: “ The ROK army’s 65th Infantry Division home is about halfway between the U.S. Army’s camps Red Cloud and Casey — and less than 20 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. The base is nicknamed “Rising Tide,” a reference to the 8,000 reservists who would flow into the base to supplement the 2,000 regular army soldiers in the division in time of war. [Source: Seth Robson, Stars and Stripes, August 7, 2005]
“At first glance, the facility, nestled among rolling hills and farmland, appears similar to U.S. bases in the area. But inside the chow hall, the difference is obvious. Just four simple items were on the lunch menu one day in late July: rice, kimchi, greens and soup. One of the 65th ID cooks, Pfc. Yon Min Son, 22, joined the army in December, starting his two years of national service before he can pursue a civilian career as a cook.
“As a private first class, Yon gets paid 36,000 won, about $35 a month. He said he spends it buying snacks like potato chips and cookies as well as pens and pencils. During his military service, Yon will get off 35 holidays and 10 days of leave. The only other times he can go off-post is if he gets a reward for special achievements, such as good marksmanship, he said. In their free time, South Korean soldiers exercise, pursue hobbies or study on-post. Barracks lights-out time is 10 p.m., an ROK Army officer said.
“Another 65th ID soldier, Cpl. Jang Suk-youn, 26, of Seoul, shares a barracks room with 18 other soldiers from his chemical support unit. The room includes a fish tank, television and radio. Soldiers are not allowed to have cell phones, MP3 or DVD players or cameras for security reasons. They store their clothes in small sets of shelves and drawers above the raised sleeping floor.
“In late July in another barracks room, soldiers sat watching a video aimed at discouraging them from physically abusing subordinates. The video was a pointed reminder of a June incident in which a South Korean soldier who said he’d been bullied by a senior officer killed eight comrades using a grenade and rifle. Another ROK soldier at Rising Tide, Cpl. Joon Y. Chung, 29, serves with a 65th ID supply and support unit. “I joined the South Korean military after graduating from California State University last year,” said Chung, who retained his South Korean citizenship after his family moved to the States when he was a child.
“Sitting in a comfortable lounge in his headquarters building last month, 65th ID commander Gen. Woo Jung Moon said soldiers’ living conditions have improved dramatically since he joined the Army 33 years ago. Rising Tide boasts an Internet café, coffee shop and swimming pool as well as several soccer fields and basketball courts, he said. “Back then, soldiers had to do all the on-site laboring,” Woo said. “Now civilian contractors do that, which gives soldiers more time to stay trained and ready.”
“A barracks that would have housed a platoon of soldiers 30 years ago sleeps a squad today, added Woo. By 2008, according to Woo’s staff, the ROK army plans to house four soldiers to a room. The facilities at Rising Tide are above average for South Korean army bases, he said, and there are plans to bring all the facilities up to that standard.”
Uniforms and Sub-Standard Boots of South Korean Soldiers
Service uniforms also resembled those of the United States forces in color and style. Service personnel wore a summer uniform of denim and a winter uniform of wool. Troops in forward areas wore a more expensive padded winter uniform. Noncommissioned officers of the army and air force wore a tunic buttoned to the top; navy noncommissioned officers wore the United States-type seaman's blouse. Officers' uniforms were similar to those worn by officers of the United States. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
Song Young-sun, a female representative in the South Korean legislature, made a name for herself for confronting generals and defense contractors over defective gear. Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As the cameras whirred and her fellow legislators watched in silence, the petite lawmaker held up Exhibit A: a new pair of combat boots. The government had just spent US$35 million and a decade doing research on the high-tech shoes, which leaked in the rain and quickly shed their heels. As far as Song Young-sun was concerned, they were just the latest example of what was wrong with the South Korean military. "You're spending billions of dollars to purchase fighter jets, ships and submarines, but the most important thing on your shopping list should be the morale of your soldiers," Song bluntly told military brass summoned to the National Assembly recently for an annual government audit. "These boots are their personal vehicles for 16 hours a day. If your feet hurt when you walk, you're not a dedicated soldier. And if you generals lose your men, you've already lost the war." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 08, 2010]
“On an impromptu inspection of a military contractor whose military-ration kimchi once contained a dead rat, she announced, "If I had a son in the military and he had to eat this kind of garbage, I'd kill all the generals." But it's not just the generals who have felt her wrath. Song has blasted overprotective mothers for turning many soldiers into "mama's boys" and has proposed that military service should be mandatory for women, not just men. She has investigated the breakdown of armored vehicles and a tank whose barrel exploded. She has campaigned against substandard drinking water and a lack of live bullets for soldiers and probed the theft of top-secret military files, including North Korea war plans, from army-issued computers.
Training in the South Korean Army
Recruit training in each of the services lasted about sixteen weeks and focused on physical conditioning, basic military skills, and the functions of combat and combat support units. Conscripts selected to serve in the army and marine corps were sent to Second Army recruit training centers for basic training. The navy and air force operated their own recruit training centers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
Seth Robson wrote in Stars and Stripes: “To Chung, the hardest part of being a South Korean soldier was yugiyo training, he said. “You walk 50 miles just to get to the training site,” he said. “Then you spend six days and nights doing all kinds of physical training. When I did that training I felt, ‘Now I am a soldier.’” But however grueling the training, the ROK army is much better now than when Chung’s father served, he said. “He said he was always hungry and always wore a torn uniform but (now) there are no shortages,” he said.
On the first day of his basic training in October 2012 at Korea Army Training Center for 28th Regiment 3rd Company 2nd Platoon, Eugene Nho — a Korean-American Stanford graduate with dual citizenship — wrote in his blog: Most Korean men beginning their service in the army go through a 6-week program at Nonsan Korea Army Training Center, consisting of basic skills trainings such as rifle shooting, grenade throwing, gas mask test, individual combat training, 20-mile march, etc. [Source: eugenenho.wordpress.com]
“The day they show up on that nondescript field in Nonsan Korea Army Training Center is unforgettable to many Korean men. Every Monday on that field, you can see hundreds of moms (and a smaller crowd of girlfriends) crying, friends waving hands, as some fifteen hundred guys mostly of age 19-21 reluctantly walk toward the field and awkwardly salute toward the crowd to report the beginning of their mandatory military service. Let’s just say this 21-month disappearance from civilization is not something most Korean men look forward to. You can almost see a degree of devastation and fear from their gloomy, discouraged faces.
“I’m not sure if I felt anything particular while all of that was happening on the day I showed up there (Oct 15, 2012). As far as I know, by that time, I had already done the hardest things — making the decision to do the military service (dual citizens technically have a choice not to do it), quitting my job half a year earlier than I wanted... I even had a rosy expectation on how much I would grow as a person from the experience of being deprived of the benefits of modern civilization and being given a “beneath-human” treatment (best translation I could attempt) — in hindsight, having no idea how mentally draining that could actually be. That’s how my life as a Korean solider began.
Boot Camp Life for a South Korean Soldier
On his life at boot camp, Eugene Nho wrote: “We wake up at 0600, do lots of moving around (roll-call, morning exercise, waiting for our turn for breakfast, etc. Quite inefficient from a private sector point of view) until 0800, take classes until 1700, do some more of semi-productive activities until 1945 and go to bed by 2000. [Source: eugenenho.wordpress.com]
“In Nonsan, my life was completely turned upside down and inside out. Instead of el pastor tacos, lamb vindaloo and occasional steaks, I was eating standard ROK (Republic of Korea) military meals, budgeted for US$1.95 per meal and containing 1-2 pieces of protein-material (doesn’t necessarily mean meat, e.g. anchovies, tofu) every three meals or so. In Nonsan, 13 of us used a room smaller than a standard hotel room. At night, we unfolded our beaten-up, military-color mattresses, one inch thick and slightly wider than our shoulder width, and slept crammed next to one another. Instead of having two phones, listening to music all the time and having the internet at my fingertip at all times, I had no phone, no music, no internet, not even access to a TV or newspapers. We couldn’t lie down except when sleeping or practicing prone position for rifle shooting, and were not allowed to ever cross legs.
“All these depreviations were completely bearable conceptually, or even when applied individually. But when all of them are forced upon us simultaneously, they add up. The toughest of all, surprisingly, was the lack of sweets. ROK standard meals contain very little sugar, so all of us soon began to crave anything sweet. There is a famous Korean snack called “Choco Pie” — two patties of chocolate-covered bread sandwiching a layer of marshmallow. Many Korean TV shows comically describe ROK soldiers doing anything to get this particular snack., and until this October, I had thought I would never go that low. I’m not going to dwell on the details of what I did, but here are some of the things the members of my platoon (may or may not include myself) did: doing someone else’s Entrance Control Duty shift (waking up in the middle of the night for 1.5 hours) for 2 Choco Pies, sewing others’ name tags onto their uniforms for 4 Choco Pies, being baptised in Christianity, Catholicism, and Buddhism in a span of three weeks and even donating blood for four additional Choco Pies (literally selling blood and soul for a few pieces of snacks).
“The single most valuable gift I’ve gotten from the military experience so far is that the “deprived” life at the Nonsan bootcamp completely re-booted my happiness-measuring system and helped me feel happiness from the smallest things. You would think I’m a stupid 7-year old, but the happiness from a bite of Choco Pie after 7 days of waiting is indescribable... I felt happy if I got to cross my legs secretly when the light went off in an auditorium. I felt happy if I got to sit down for 10 minutes after walking with a 20kg backpack for 40 minutes. I felt happy if I got to sleep 7 hours uninterrupted without any EC duty shift (we had two shifts every three nights, on average). [Source: eugenenho.wordpress.com]
“The most popular item on the standard ROK meal menu was hamburgers. After a famous Korean hamburger franchise called “Lotteria”, we called it “Goondae-ria” (“Goondae” means military), so a forced translation would be something akin to “MilDonald’s”. It is, by all objective standard in the non-military world, the most abject piece of food you could imagine: they give you two sets of hamburger bread and one patty. The patty is made of unspecifiable meat or meat-like protein material, and has no taste by itself. It comes with a tiny plastic container with sauce. If you apply the “chicken sauce”, then the meat becomes chicken. If you apply the “beef sauce”, the meat becomes beef. If you’re lucky you get a piece of cheese, but mostly it’s just the “meat” and a few pieces of shredded lettuce. The second set of hamburger bread (we got two sets) was to be consumed with a bit of strawberry jam that came out of a giant steel can (not jar). No one in their right mind would choose to eat this outside the military. Nonetheless, we looked forward to the weekends in anticipation of this “Goondae-ria” and cheered when we saw them at the cafeteria — another evidence illustrating how easily our standard can adapt to the external environment.
Importance of Being Average in the South Korean Army
Eugene Nho wrote: “One of the most powerful cultural shock to me at the training center was the place’s culture of striving to be average. The overwhelming majority’s mindset was not only to avoid poor performance, but interestingly, also to avoid good performance. When training instructors gave trainees a chore, e.g. organizing supplies, the trainees didn’t want to be punished for messing it up, but also didn’t want to be considered too good at it because they knew that would only ensure more of such task in the future. [Source: eugenenho.wordpress.com]
“Having only experienced the culture of striving the best one could be, I didn’t quite understand such a mindset. I had heard many people telling me “don’t mess up, but also don’t do too good a job,” but thought there would certainly be benefits to giving my best to whatever I do. And that’s how I lived for the first three weeks.
“But soon, I realized why the oft-cited phrase “being in the middle is the best when in the Korean military” was a timeless truth. I was a “platoon leader trainee” so the instructors gave me lots of chores to do, from cleaning the hallways to organizing supplies, etc. I gave my best to every single one of those tasks, but soon, I realized why it was a broken system bound to create the “average culture.” Better performance was not only not awarded in any way, but led to more unawarded work. The impact of this broken incentive system was significant enough to eventually change the attitude of someone who used to think along the lines of “if you’re going to do it anyway, why not give it your best?” It was a powerful illustration of how critical the design of incentives is in motivating people in an organization, no matter how self-motivating those people might be.
40-Kilometers Road March and the End of South Korean Basic Training
Eugene Nho wrote: “ The training program culminates in the 5th week with a series of its most challenging activities in a span of three or four days. For us, individual combat training, encampment, and 40km march were scheduled back to back on Week 5. By the time we began our 40km march, we could almost feel the end of our bootcamp life within our grasp. [Source: eugenenho.wordpress.com]
The thing about the march is that it is less about managing your physical self than about managing your mental self. Because we get to rest every 50 minutes, physical challenge of walking with a ~23kg backpack (consisting of things such as emergency shovel, food container, blanket, etc) is not too severe as long as you can make your mental self not dwell on how much time is left until the next rest. The giant Nonsan field that we walk all over is fairly nondescript, so the view ceases to provide enough visual stimuli after an hour or so.
For me, the mental haven of choice and endless source of distraction was the memories of all the great times I had with the amazing people I was fortunate to get to know. While I was making that 40km trip across Nonsan field with my company, in my head, I was on journeys of my own...The small, everyday things I didn’t even think I would remember — pushups my team did in our team room to get blood pumping before a long night of work, the taste of whiskey my roommate and I took when we decided we both had too many pages to make sober, etc — popped up here and there throughout my journey and made me smile.
By the time my company made our way back to the base, my mental meandering also arrived at a couple concluding thoughts: That if one’s asset is sized by the amount of incredible, amazing, fun memories with people that require the same adjectives, I’d be a pretty darn rich man despite US$90/month salary as a ROK soldier. On November 21, 2012, we officially finished the basic training program, and left for our assigned bases on November 23, 2012. I was assigned to the ROK-US Combined Forces Command in Seoul, which is the command center for all US and ROK forces present on the peninsula during wartime (peacetime operation control is with ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff).
Looking back, it is difficult to think of five weeks more eventful than the ones in Nonsan. During these five weeks, I went from a Spotify-addicted civilian to a rifle-shooting, grenade-throwing Private Second Class, experienced more “exotic” chores than I could have imagened (including manually sorting trash, which included toilet paper from toilets), made friends with people 5-7 years younger than I am, and most of all, learned more about myself than I thought was possible in such a short time. I’m not sure if I’d choose to do it again, but it was certainly five weeks well-spent that I should be grateful for.
Two South Korean Soldiers Die in Training Drill
In September 2014, two South Korean special forces soldiers died during training. Th BBC reported: The two men, both in their early 20s, collapsed during captivity training on Tuesday, Yonhap news agency said. They died of apparent suffocation, with a third man needing treatment, it said. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2014]
The incident happened at a Special Warfare Command unit in Jeungpyeong, south of Seoul. The men were being trained on what to do if captured, Yonhap said. Citing officials, it said they had spent more than an hour on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs wearing hoods over their faces.
Two of them "had breathing problems during the mock captivity training when their heads were wrapped in cloth, and died after being sent to hospital", said a Special Warfare Command spokesman. Yonhap quoted another official as saying the training programme had been adopted from the US, Britain and Australia and "there must have been some sloppiness in carrying out the training".
South Korean Soldiers Use Pictures of Kim Jong-un for Target Practice
Training centers sometimes use pictures of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and his son. the current leader Kim Jong Un, for target practice at rifle ranges. The Telegraph reported: Several training centers for army reservists, including those in Gyeonggi province surrounding the capital Seoul, use the pictures as targets, a ministry spokesman said. Each center has the freedom to decide its own training procedures and the ministry issued no instructions about targets, he told AFP. "Details of military practices are for each training center to decide." [Source: The Telegraph, 31 May 2011]
Several local media published pictures of targets depicting Kim Jong-Il, his late father and founding president Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il's youngest son and heir apparent Kim Jong-Un. A military official quoted by Chosun Ilbo newspaper said the practice is aimed at "boosting battle spirit" following the North's bombardment of a border island last November that killed four South Koreans.
“"Some voice concern that the practice can provoke the North, but one should not forget the North staged two attacks that killed our civilians and soldiers," said the official quoted by Chosun. Disrespecting portraits of the ruling family would be a grave crime in the North, where a massive personality cult surrounds the Kims. Official media in 2007 carried approving accounts of parents who sacrificed children to save such portraits during floods.” Later, North Korea threatened to retaliate for the South Korean military's use of photos of Kim Jong Il's family for shooting practice.
South Korean Troops Shoot at Passenger Jet
In 2011, South Korean troops shot at civilian passenger jet, mistaking it for a North Korean military aircraft. The Telegraph reported: “The South Korean jet was coming in to land at Seoul's Incheon International Airport - close to the border with North Korea - when Marines opened fire with rifles. The incident took place at dawn. The Asiana Airlines jet carrying about 119 people was undamaged and no one was hurt [Source: The Telegraph, June 18, 2011].
The incident highlights how persistent tensions near the heavily armed inter-Korean border pose the possibility for dangerous miscalculation. An Asiana official reached by telephone confirmed that marines fired small weapons at one of the airline's planes coming from China and that there was no damage. Two marine guards stationed on Gyodong island near the border fired rifle rounds at the flight as it approached Incheon International Airport west of Seoul, mistaking it for a North Korean military plane, the Yonhap report said. The jet was flying out of range of the rifles and avoided damage, it said.
The airport is located about 25 miles south of the inter-Korean border. Yonhap quoted its source as saying the marines claimed the plane was flying off course. The Asiana official, described the plane's route as normal.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021