Sunday, April 19, 2009

Military Service Series: Part III – Korean Military and Korean Society

See previous parts of the series here: Part I Part II

Through Part I and II, we surveyed how Korean men serve their military duty, and what happens during the years spent serving. The next question is – how does this experience, common to most Korean men, affect the shaping of Korean society?

Part II left off at the life lessons that Korean men learn through their stint at the military. The Korean noted that the military experience builds Korean men’s tolerance for dealing with arbitrary crap that results from a hierarchical organization that requires unquestioning loyalty. The Korean also noted that our adult lives is full such situations in which we simply must grin and bear with the crap that we do not wish to deal with.

Nowhere is the latter statement truer than in Korea. In fact, one can argue that the military culture neatly coincides with traditional Korean culture – in both cultures, seniority automatically commands respect and loyalty. It is not surprising, then, that Korean workplaces are often run just like a squad in the military. You do what your boss tells you to do, and you are supposed to grin and bear it. Your time will come because Korea, like Japan, had automatic advancement by seniority at least until 1990s. Once you are the boss, you can order people around, much like the way you can order people around once you put in the time and became a sergeant.

In fact, one can make an argument that having this type of corporate culture was a key ingredient in propelling Korea into the forefront of economic development. The start of Korea’s economic development began with light industries, such as making cheap clothes, wigs, and shoes in sweatshops. Then from 1970s to mid-1990s, the main engine for Korea’s economy was heavy industries – shipbuilding, petroleum refining, steeling making and the like. Each stage of the development, first and foremost, required a well-disciplined workforce who was willing to take orders and follow them.

And boy, Koreans could follow those orders. The stories about how hard Koreans worked in the 70s and 80s often defy belief. The unofficial motto of Hyundai Heavy Industries, currently one of the world leaders in shipbuilding, was: “We work 5 [a.m.] to 9 [p.m.] when other countries work 9 to 5.” The only people who work this type of hours in America, arguably, are investment bankers who earn six figures, or desperately poor people working two or three jobs. But in Korea during those times, it was the whole country working those hours without a complaint. Every man going through the military, it can be argued, instilled this level of discipline that served Korea well during this time.

However, the downside of the military experience is equally significant. The hierarchy-oriented Korean men do not stop being that way once they are done with work. Therefore, social life in Korea, especially before 1990s, was very stuffy and authoritarian everywhere.

More importantly, Korean men who went through the military experience tend to become completely insufferable – like the worst Red Sox fan before they won the World Series in 2004. Like the Korean noted in the earlier series, the military experience in Korea is no picnic. It involves significant sacrifice both physical and mental, not to mention the two to three precious years of youth. To justify this sacrifice, military duty has been elevated into a sacred status; it is commonly referred to as “the holy duty of national defense”. Because there is such a strong sense that the military duty is a massive sacrifice, there is nearly a witch-hunt of those who do not serve; instant ruination awaits prominent figures who do not serve.

For example, some Korean men refuse to serve based on their religious commitment for pacifism – usually Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because they are lumped into the same group as draft dodgers, the standard practice is to put them in prison for as long as they would have served in the military. In other words, sincere pacifists in Korea have no choice but to become an ex-con. Even a proposal for “alternate service option”, such as community service at a hospital for example, does not gain much traction for fear that religion may be used as a cover for easier military service.

Another example is 2002 presidential election in Korea, in which Roh Moo-Hyun won in a surprise victory. While there are many factors that led to the opposing candidate Lee Hoi-Chang’s loss, one of them is the revelation during the campaign that one of Lee’s sons did not serve the military duty for being underweight – a highly suspect excuse. Essentially, (for those who remember the 2004 American presidential election,) the military service issue was Roh’s Swift Boat that torpedoed Lee’s chances. Since then, it became inconceivable for anyone with aspirations for a public office to not serve or not have his sons serve in the military.

Interesting offshoot of this phenomenon is that military experience becomes fuel for sexism. Remember that Korean men believe that they made an incredible sacrifice by serving in the military. (And to some extent, that is true.) So whenever women demand more equal rights, a standard, pithy answer from men is: “Have you been to the military?” For example, a few years ago Korean government abolished the bonus points given to those who served in the military in hiring government workers, based on the reason that it is unfair to women. The decision nearly caused a riot, and is still a very popular fodder for anti-feminists in Korea.

That concludes military service series. Hope you enjoyed it.

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


  1. "So whenever women demand more equal rights, a standard, pithy answer from men is: 'Have you been to the military?'"

    Perhaps a woman's retort should be, "Can you make babies?" - or, "do you like the process by which babies are made?"

    In all seriousness, an excellent series, and one that assists in understanding where Korea has been. What's next, though? Only a few countries in the world even have mandatory military service, and most of the 'volunteer military' countries seem to be doing ok in that regard.

    After talking with quite a few Korean men about their military experiences, it seems a part of their life they're ready to put behind them, not scrapbooked or thought about so as to move forward with life. Do they necessarily feel they should automatically command respect based on seniority, and not contribution? I don't see that as much. Perhaps it's because they're in an intractable cycle where their personal contribution is more likely to be pre-empted by a senior or someone else up the line. I see most Koreans *wanting* to make a difference, but in a way that passes up the system as they know it.

    1. "Perhaps a woman's retort should be, "Can you make babies?" - or, "do you like the process by which babies are made?""

      South Korea has the 6th lowest birth rate in the world at 8.43 per year per thousand ppl (this is only behind Germany, Japan, and city states such as singapore and monaco), so I don't think the excuse flies at all.

  2. I really enjoyed this serie of articles regarding Korean military. Your article touches the essense, especially this last article you wrote.

  3. The Korean-

    If you get to read this...

    Cheers, brilliant analysis as always. (While I know you do not prefer to receive questions through the comment section,) I just wanted to know if you could personally recommend some books for further reading on the topics discussed in this post, esp. regarding organizational culture & S. Korea's economic growth in the late 20th century.

    I find the bits like 5-to-9 attitude thing quite fascinating and would love to learn more... but I don't know where to start, tbh.

    I'll search for some material myself, but I will really appreciate it if you would respond.

    Thanks again for the great series. Loved seeing how the military experience connects to societal functions as a whole (at least pertaining to the experiences of Korean *men*).

  4. I was hoping you'd dive a bit into how post-military, the sort of 복학생 효과, both in Korea and abroad. In Korea, I remember hearing that those guys were both: 1) insanely popular with younger women, and 2) ate lunch alone in the school cafeteria because their friends had graduated or they had no friends.

    There were a number of international Korean students who i went to college with, but who then left to go to goondae and are now back. They're definitely # 2 right now.

    Great post--I loved the 9 to 5, and 5 to 9. Old time ajasshi were majorly intense--I always imagine should an errant blade slice of their arm, they would simply, a la Monty Python, just look at their arm and say--ha, a mere flesh wound! and keep working.

    at the same time, i wonder what those same ajasshi-dul must be thinking about their sons with perms, lipstick and tight jeans. :S

  5. CiSk,

    Don't worry, women definitely give that response.


    Alright fine, this is an exception. If you can read Korean, try the autobiography of Chung Joo-Young (founder of Hyundai). A bit flowery on the achievements, but still a great source for some incredible stories.


    You are right, the Korean really should have dropped a line about 복학생, i.e. the juniors and seniors in college who returned to school after their service. Oh well.

  6. I remember once when I was dating this one yuhakseng (Korean foreign exchange student) in college and I was pissed because I was 24 and still an undergrad because I had to take time off to help with the family business.

    I loved what she said. "It's okay oppah. Because of mandatory military service, all the undergraduate guys in Korea are 24-25."

    I don't know why, but it made me feel better.

  7. The Korean knows why... it's the word "oppa". Seriously, it's like kryptonite to Korean men.

  8. AAK,

    Also, I personally would not attribute Korea's work ethic to the Korean military. I would attribute it to rice culture. It takes A LOT of hard work to cultivate rice. I would say that the work ethic and organizational demands of rice culture had more affect on the Korean military and not vice versa.

  9. "For example, a few years ago Korean government abolished the bonus points given to those who served in the military in hiring government workers, based on the reason that it is unfair to women."That explains why women now comprise more than half of new prosecutors and judges.

    "The Korean knows why... it's the word "oppa". Seriously, it's like kryptonite to Korean men."Only when uttered by a Korean woman. Hearing "Oppa" from a white woman makes a Korean man's hair stand on end.

  10. Sonagi,

    That's because we know when a Korean girl says "oppah" she's just trying to be cute. When a white woman who's not raised in Korean society (or Korean parents) says that it means she's dipping a toe into your world and wants you to reciprocate with a commensurate amount of commitment. It would scare the hell out of me too.

    However, if a white looking half Korean girl said oppah, that wouldn't bother me at all because I'd know she's just doing it to be cute also.

  11. Plus... they can't say it right. The inflection would be all wrong. When "oppah" is not said right, it sounds like fingernails over a chalk board!

  12. Edward,

    Really? "oppa" by a white woman (has not heard it from a black woman yet) totally works on the Korean. Maybe he is just easy.

    About the "rice work" theory -- sure, that's a possible theory. The Korean is not sure if the "military service" theory is a good one either. He only wrote that because it is a popular argument.


    Actually, prosecutors and judges never really received the military service bonus points. That is more your standard government workers at, say, a post office.

  13. Although I have my own notes on the matter, I thought I'd simplify my task by just linking to a web site that explains the theory:

    Because of rice culture (specifically wet rice culture), Koreans will work their asses off despite mandatory military service, just as the Japanese and the Chinese do.

  14. AAK,

    The dark side of Korean's military's influence on culture:

  15. Dear Korean;

    An excellent series, and, in general, a fine overview of military service.

    After teaching university and college English for ten years in Korea, I've heard thousands of stories, (good and bad), about military service. I've even stayed at the same school long enough to see my boisterous, unruly, soju swilling, undisciplined freshmen boys go off to the army and return as polite, attentive, disciplined, soju swilling young sophomore men. (The transformation is quite remarkable)

    There are a few two very important things you did not touch upon, however, and I am curious as to why. They would be sexual assault by officers, (reported and unreported), and the increase in suicide during military service.

  16. Ok, so a friend went to this website for ROK military and under the military service section found out that after this 5 weeks of training they are to be sent back home for a day or 2 to get prepared for their assigned bases?
    Does anyone know if this is true as of April 2009? _ _)

  17. "The Korean knows why... it's the word 'oppa'. Seriously, it's like kryptonite to Korean men."

    True, true! It melts the heart of even a born cynic like me.

    Too bad I am no longer the age where girls/women call me "oppa"--unless they are my relatives! :(

  18. Are men who can't serve due to injury put into the same category of disgrace as the 'draft dodgers' and pacifists?

  19. South Korea has a relatively large military budget, but quality of life in military tend to be shit mostly due to rampant corruption.

    You will mostly deal with having to trek mountain and gathering firewood, because your scumbag officer happened to embezzled and sold off heating fuel provided by the military.

    You will most likely end up eating diseased animals culled and discarded by the livestock industry, because certain superior of yours decided to embezzle and sell off the food ingredient supplied by the military and replace them with free alternative.

    You will most likely have to deal with being used as an unpaid slave labor for various construction and private civilian projects, because certain politicians embezzled govt prject funds, or even corporate executives bribing corrupt generals to use soldier labor.


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