Friday, April 03, 2009

Military Service Series: Part II - Life in the Korean Military

See Part I here

Dear Korean,

I have a friend who ended up having to go back to Korea to serve in the military because he couldn't get citizenship here in the US, even though he's been here since he was 8. Is it okay to send food to people in the Korean military? I wanted to send him cookies and other things, but I don't know if they allow it.


Dear Sheila,

Your question is a nice lead into the Part II of Korean military service, namely: what is it like in the military?

Allow the Korean to give this caveat one more time. The Korean never served in the military. Because he left Korea before the draft age, he did not have to. Therefore, all information here is based on second-hand stories from the Korean’s friends who did serve, plus a little bit of independent research. If there is anything wrong in this post, the Korean will gladly accept corrections.

If you remember Part I, there are a number of “soft” placements in the military that does not require living on a base as a soldier. However, those placements are relatively few in number. Vast majority of Korean men spend their time during their service as a regular ground infantry, only differing in their base location and job description. So what do these men go through?

Training Center/Boot Camp

First comes the 5-week stint at the training center/boot camp. In the first three days, new recruits receive their supplies. These supplies include everything, including uniform, boots, and underwear. Strictly speaking, no soldier in the training center is allowed to have any private item – everything is provided by the military. In practice, soldiers in the training center are generally allowed to have a spare pair of glasses, a watch, a small amount of cash, etc. There is more leeway with respect to personal items once the men are assigned to their bases.

(Picture of the training center at Nonsan)

The recruits’ personal items – usually the clothes in which they come into the boot camp – are packed up and sent back to their parents. It is the quintessential Korean mother’s experience to cry over her son’s dusty clothes mailed back to her after she sent her son away for his military service.

New recruits are then given a physical. Although it is extremely rare to be sent home at this stage, there are a few whose health has significantly deteriorated below draft eligibility between the time when they received the initial physical and the time when they report to the training center. These men are sent home.

Then the new recruits receive an exam that would determine their specialty as a soldier. This is based on their college major, career background, etc. However, this is far from a scientific process; more like a rough guess. For example, many math majors are assigned to artillery because firing a cannon requires a quick number-crunching ability. But it is not as if these men are tested as to how fast they can actually calculate things.

Once the specialties are assigned, the new recruits are trained to be soldiers. They receive their weapons, learn how to shoot rifles and throw grenades, learn how to march and patrol, etc. It is more or less the training you might see in a movie – they go through marches with full gear (around 55 to 60 pounds) during the day and at night, learn how to fight with bayonet, train how to use their hazmat masks and sit through tear gas, learn how to dig trenches and encamp, learn first aid, etc. After five weeks of this, the soldiers are assigned to their bases.

At the Base

The long haul begins at the bases. The life at the bases can differ vastly depending on where the base is, and what your specialty is. The unanimous worst placement is the bases in the mountainous range in eastern Korea, along the Armistice Line. Staring directly into North Korea, these soldiers must constantly patrol in the blistering cold, often in minefields. In comparison, soldiers assigned to a supply center base in the southern parts of Korea have an easier time. Training continues to happen at the base, but the intensity of such training is vastly different depending on the specialty. However, at least once a year, every soldier goes through a pretty intense combat training.

Amenities differ significantly from base to base as well. The luckiest few bases sometimes have karaoke, Internet café, arcade, etc, as well as indoor plumbing and shower facilities. The unlucky ones will have outdoor plumbing, no hot water, and only a dirt field that doubles as a soccer pitch. Generally each squad shares a single room to sleep in, and the room tends to have a television. Of course, the channel showing on that television is entirely up to the sergeant, who is usually the highest-ranking officer in a squad.

A little more explanation on soccer in the base is warranted, because it is such a universal part of the military experience. The soccer experience is called “Gundaesliga”, a parody of “Bundesliga” or the Federal League in Germany. (“Gundae” is Korean for “military”.) Because soccer is popular in Korea, and also because the game can entertain 22 men with a single ball, playing soccer is nearly a ubiquitous experience for all Korean men who served in the military. Each squad would usually play as a team, sometimes with each sergeant of the squad betting snacks or drinks. Long discipline process such as running several miles, etc. usually awaits the losing team. It is said that for a gifted soccer player, life in the military comes easily. Because inter-squad soccer games factor so much into the military life, the ranking soldiers take it a little easy on the star players.

(A parody, popular among Korean websites, showing "Gundaesliga" created from the Winning Eleven, a soccer video game.)

When it comes right down to it, daily life at the base is rather boring. Assignments range from serious (patrolling) to petty (cleaning the base), but they generally end by 5 p.m. After 5 p.m., soldiers play soccer, read, study, or generally do anything to kill time.

Soldiers enter the base as a private, and gradually move up the rank up to sergeant over time. Sergeants, since they are closing in on finishing their duties, are known to be lazier and more slovenly in their uniforms.

Furloughs are permitted intermittently throughout the soldier’s career. It starts with the “100 day furlough” – time outside, usually for 4-5 days, given after 100 days of military service. After that, soldiers get the total of 10 furlough days for the rest of their time in the military. In addition, there are special furlough days given out as a reward for a variety of things – ranging from something important like good marksmanship to something trivial like being the crowd favorite in the battalion talent show. A squad mate of the Korean’s friend won a furlough day for randomly saluting at a helicopter flying nearby, which happened to carry a general who saw the salute. Soldiers are also given furloughs for personal circumstances, e.g. death in the family.

Soldiers can have visitors, but usually they need to ask for permission ahead of time. To answer Shiela’s question, soldiers can also receive packages. But keep in mind that all packages will be searched, and soldiers are expected to share any food coming from outside with their squad mates. If you are sending food, send plenty and in small packets.

Also, soldiers get paid in nominal amounts. Privates receive around $55 a month, and sergeants receive around $80 a month or so.

Life at the Base, and Aftermath

So, now we know what the nitty-gritties are in the Korean military, but what is it really like? Obviously, this answer strongly depends on the particular assignment and the superiors, but some common elements exist – emphasis on hierarchy, working as an organization, and learning to tolerate loads and loads of bullshit.

After all, these soldiers are in the military. And military does not function without the willingness of lower-ranking soldiers to follow the directions of higher-ranking soldiers. Therefore, in a regular squad, sergeants are kings. They control everything good in the squad, e.g. the first cut of the chocolate that a private’s girlfriend sent from outside the base, what channel the squad television would show, etc.

At one point, indiscriminate beating was commonplace in the military. Although (at least nominally) beating is not allowed Korean military anymore, there are plenty of ways in which the ranking officer can make a soldier’s life miserable. Other types of physical discipline such as running laps or Wonsan Pokgyeok (pictured in Part I) are plenty available, and there is virtually no limit to insults and condescension.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Korean army is a place with a ton of manpower, but little money. Therefore, even the most menial task – such as cleaning the pool of the general’s house – falls on the soldiers. Also, like other parts of Korean bureaucracy, professionalism is missing at times and rules are frequently bent in the Korean military.

This often results in many hilarious situations. For example, the Korean has a friend who spent his military years in the eastern mountain range in Korea. One day, the general decided that he would have fresh sashimi for his guest. The Korean’s friend and his squad mate drove in a truck for two hours to the shore, and managed to acquire fresh, live fish. But how to bring them home fresh and alive?

A normal person’s answer would be, “Rent a truck with equipped with a tank and an air compressor, the kind that would deliver live fish to sushi restaurants.” But remember, this is the Korean military. It does not have the money to rent such a truck, but it does have the manpower of two soldiers.

So what did the Korean’s friend do? He sat in the back of the truck, churning the water in the tub so that air would go in and the fish would be kept alive. (His squad mate got to drive the truck because he joined the military a few months ahead of the Korean’s friend, therefore outranking him.) This was in the middle of winter, and the truck bed was exposed to the freezing wind as the truck drove into the mountains. The Korean’s friend nearly froze to death, but the fish were alive until they were served on a plate that evening.

Stories of this type, coming out of Korean military, are dime a dozen. A brother of the Korean’s friend was in the Special Forces, and he recalls his platoon carving out a side of a mountain to build a swimming pool using only the tiny field spades. The Korean Uncle, a doctor specializing in internal medicine, routinely performed appendectomy as a medic in the military because, in his words, “I wanted to practice.”

For some of today’s Korean young men, who have gone soft since the days of their fathers, military experience can be unbearable. Physical exercise is grueling, the superiors can be arbitrary and insulting, and your squad mates could shun you if you are responsible for putting the whole squad in trouble. Given that these guys, just like any other soldiers in Korea, can access guns and grenades, it should be no surprise that recently there has been a string of incidents in which a draftee shoots up his squad or toss a grenade in the squad room, killing many.

However, most Korean men go through with the service without a huge incident. Few Korean men truly love their military experience. (Those who do have the option to stay in the military and continue their service as career soldiers.) But Korean men generally tolerate it and find life lessons to be learned from the experience, mostly because it is something that everyone has to go through.

And there are definitely good life lessons to be learned from the experience, although it may be debatable whether learning those lessons is a good use of 2 to 3 years of young men in their prime. To put it bluntly, the military experience builds Korean men’s tolerance for all the life’s bullshit. As the Korean described so far, there is no shortage of bullshit – some of them perhaps the worst to be encountered in life – in the military. Exhausting physical training, insults and condescension from the superiors, and wasting time on arbitrary and trivial errands are all part of the experience. For young Korean men in the military, there is no choice but to simply grin and bear them. Once they finish bearing it, they know that most difficulties in life would be easier than what they already went through. The combination of such tolerance and insight, some may call it maturity – because, as anyone who has had a regular job can tell you, life as an adult has a lot of crap that we must simply grin and bear.

Part III of this series will further examine how the military experience shapes Korean men post-military, and how the experience with military service affects the broader Korean society in general.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. A Korean,
    Sounds like how life in the US military may have been before all the fancy equipment and electronics came along. I'd guess most Korean men know what to expect before they get there (tales from friends, former co-workers, etc.), so they at least can make it work for them...

    I'm just trying to picture any significant percentage of American men being required to serve in the military for 2 years... We'd cure a good part of the obesity problem (or at half of it, if America only required the men to serve) in no time flat...

  2. I used to ask my Korean friends what their job was in the Army. Until one day a friend almost refused to answer. After a lot of pressure from me and another friend. He finally told us that he was a nurse, and had to perform circumcisions all day long for his entire tour! Apparently in those days the men wanted to be cut, but didn't want to pay the doctor fee. By waiting until they were in the Army, the service was provided for free. What a job!

    I won't repeat the details of his final story, near the end of his tour, when his basic training sergeant came in for the operation. But it involved substituting sterile water for local anesthetic...

  3. Thanks for the excellent story, Chris!

  4. This article is old, but I'm gonna share my thoughts anyhow! While I was serving in the US Army, I spent two weeks with a ROK unit through an exchange program. Here are some observations:

    1. While your average Korean Soldier may not want to serve along the DMZ in the mountains, the Army seemed to try and make the lives of these unfortunates more bearable. My unit was stationed in Chunchon. The food was terrible, many troops' uniforms were old and the living conditions were substandard. I got to go up to the Z and found the amenities much better.

    2. Rank definitely seem to have privileges. I was put up what was basically a dorm room for lieutenants. I was shocked to see Second Lieutenants bringing First Lieutenants breakfast. Lots of bowing, vocal honorifics, etc. Never would have happened in the US Army.

    3. Weapon Security: Barring a combat scenario, US Army unit weapons are locked away in storage rooms which bear close resemblances to bank vaults. There are layers and layers of security to get through and ammunition is NEVER stored with weapons. The ROK Army units I saw kept their weapons in glorified gun racks in sleeping quarters. I didn't notice live ammunition laying around, but I know it was not unusual to see Soldiers with live ammunition and even grenades. Its not at all surprising they occasionally go postal with the tools at hand!

    1. I know this is extremely late, but I'm just wondering if you know what the boot camp in Chunchon is like? Because a friend of mine enlisted into the boot camp there earlier today, and I'm just wondering what he is going to have to endure for the next five weeks...

  5. Three comments by three different "Chris"s. This has to be some type of Internet record.

  6. Mr. korean, my bf is currently doing his military service in korea. he told me he won't be able to contact me for at least the first 3 months. i just wanna know if it's true. and can i send him a letter by mail?

  7. I am also wondering about the length of boot camp for the army. I have read that it is 5,7 or 8 weeks. Which one of those is correct for 2014/2015? Also, once boot camp is over will my friend be able to freely email me? What are the ways in which the soldiers are allowed to communicate? Can they use Kakaotalk, facebook or skype, or just email and snail mail? My best friend began boot camp on December 15, 2014 and I am very anxious to be able to communicate with him. Thanks!

  8. Can someone who is currently serving the country go to overseas for vacation?

    1. I personally don't think so, because they only have very short vacations, probably only 2 days max each time, they would not have enough time to travel overseas. The only solution is that you can go visit your friend in korea when he has a holiday.


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