Seven years ago, I was freed from mandatory military service when I obtained my Canadian citizenship. It was honestly one of the best feelings I have ever felt, standing in front of the administrator and holding the citizenship certificate in my hands. The stories my father told — brutal daily training exercises in the ice and under the sun, unforgiving drill sergeants with voices louder than a fighter jet’s sonic booms, cramped tiny accommodations that’ll give anyone claustrophobia — were all gone from my life.
But for the Korean men here, military exemption is somewhat of a dream. The draft here is not easy to walk out of. If you are a Korean male, unless you have PhD degrees, a shiny gold medal, or a body broken beyond repair, you’re going to the military. Considering South Korea’s current situation, the draft makes sense. The Korean War isn’t over and its conclusion is a pipe dream at this point. South Korea has to keep its guard up against the heavily militaristic North Korea who is primed to launch an invasion at best and a nuclear bombardment at worst. The Asian Tiger needs to keep its military force healthy in order to maintain the safety and prosperity it has obtained in modern times, yet it’s this same safeguard that makes the Korean population weary.
No country ever wants a draft. No one wants to see their fathers, sons, and husbands go to the frontlines. But for a case like Korea and its never ending war, the draft has gained power and has become a facet of Korean life. It changed from a desperation tactic to a rite of passage and Korean men aren’t even considered “men” until they finish their service. My parents brought me to Canada so I could be exempted from the draft, yet my father still jokes from time to time about sending me to the military anyway to harden up and learn some discipline. It’s so ingrained that the men have a duty to serve and failure to comply is both a betrayal against the country and to themselves as men. How many celebrities have been socially destroyed for draft dodging? When MC Mong pulled out his teeth, Korea did not hesitate to show its anger and banned him from KBS and MBC. Steve Yoo was deported because of draft dodging, with the government labelling his act as desertion. Koreans abhor the draft, yet ironically lash out against those who try to escape it.
For the men themselves, the draft is a wall; a wall that strips them of two years of their life. Many have to base their entire academic and career paths to either accommodate or exempt themselves from conscription. KAIST students have the luxury of pursuing a PhD here to avoid the draft, and when the government tried to abolish this program, the student body exploded in rage. That one moment showed how many people had conscription on their minds when they applied for KAIST, just how intense their feelings were, and how far they were willing to go to fight against it. The people I’ve talked to lament the day they have to put on the boots, shave their heads, and endure hell. Yet, none of them directly complained about the existence of the draft; they only complained about the contents of it. A part of them knows that it’s a necessary evil and that without it, the country may be overrun the next day.
It took me four years here to realize how fortuitous I was. Living in Canada removed me from the mess that is the Korean War and the draft. A part of me can’t help but wonder about what I will never be able to experience, understand, or sympathize with. It begs the question of when this will all end. Will it end with unification? Will it end in a one-sided slaughter? When will Korean men be free of their innate shackle?