An unusually successful summit between North and South Korea has sparked the interest of onlookers on an international level. Of course, it is none other than the Korean public that was most impressed by the historic event. Ambitious steps towards denuclearization and ending the war have now been officially outlined. As a Korean, I cannot help but feel a sense of cautious optimism that there will be more progress to come.
Those who are less cautious in their optimism raise a question relevant to many members of KAIST: if the war ends, would military service remain compulsory? Mandatory military service, at least before its completion, is a shared specter that haunts most Korean males, but this is particularly so in the case of the average KAIST student. Such a student — who is also Korean, male, and in his early 20s like his counterparts — is especially contemplative on this issue because he has a unique privilege to look for more academic alternatives to traditional service. While these alternatives can be attractive to some, to others the widened range of choices may only complicate an already difficult decision process.
Keeping this in mind, what would a shift to a voluntary military service system mean for us? At first glance, it sounds like a marvelous idea. However, as a Korean man, I cannot help but be skeptical whether such a change is as desirable as it appears. Is it plain Stockholm syndrome or is there a legitimate cause for concern? To answer these questions on Korean society, I must first examine a non-Korean one.
In certain Native American cultures, there are customs collectively known as vision quests. These quests are a rite of passage, a significant event marking an individual’s transition into adulthood. The participant is often denied food and social interaction, but this is only in order to push the participant into a highly spiritual state. Completion of the quest can thus prove one’s worth and justify an elevation in society. A Korean man does not need to identify with the spiritual background of these cultures to find the experience somewhat familiar.
Why does a military service system, necessitated by a civil war halted in armistice, bear such similarities to a religious trial? In fact, it might be pertinent to ask first, what are the spiritual beliefs of modern Korea? To call it Buddhist, on grounds of history, feels inaccurate, because there are not enough people that actively practice Buddhism. But to call it Christian, based on popularity, feels blasphemous to older Korean beliefs. Although a Confucian influence passively remains in social norms, rarely are Confucian spiritual beliefs actively practiced. The fact that there is no unifying spiritual belief in a single-race country with a long history is curious.
Ironically, since the division of Korea, there were further divisions in the South. Since the armistice, the country has undergone massive political, economic, and cultural revolutions. Although these can attest to the success of an extremely hasty modernization, they left behind a confused national identity that carries outdated values no longer applicable to the lifestyle it lives. If there is one uniquely Korean thing that survived for more than the half-century period since then, it is the threat of going back to war.
In the Korean subconscious, military has become a pseudo-religion. The rhetoric used in the campaigns promoting this religion cannot be any clearer: “This is how one becomes a real man,” and “self-sacrifice for a greater cause”. The participants are denied basic conveniences and social interaction, but they know that completion will mark them forevermore. After the experience, the participants return to society a changed man. They have been enlightened and share a spiritual bond with all those that have also undergone the experience. They will happily share their experiences and connect with others who have had similar experiences. There is no other experience that accurately captures what it means to be a Korean man than those gained from military service.
Of course, the unifying ability of this pseudo-religion is not without drawbacks. Those who have participated might feel justified in shunning non-participants as lesser beings in society. Specifically, the constant political tension between the two sexes is likely never to be resolved as long as males view females as infidels while females find no reason to convert.
If the long tradition of compulsory military service is to be removed, the religion will be disenchanted, and leave behind a void to fill. Then it would be naturally up to us, those yet to have participated, to be responsible for filling in the gaps with an improvement. Not only will we remain outsiders to the rest of society, we must also carry the responsibility of redefining a Korean psyche that is to be passed on to later generations. If we are to embrace the liberation that comes from volunteer military service, we must also embrace — with equal enthusiasm — the possibility of becoming the lonely and godless generation. For now though, how we do so and whether we ever will remain as mere speculations.