Video: South Korean military stages a very elaborate, official Les Miserable parody

February 6, 2013

Technically, this 14-minute video, produced by the South Korean air force media team and marching band, is a parody of Les Miserables. (To be more precise: a parody of the latest American film remake of the 1980 musical that's based on the 19th century French novel.) But the video is so polished and professional, not to mention enthusiastic in its embrace of the Les Miserable musical at its most melodramatic, that it's hard to know what to call it.

In this version, Jean Valjean is a young enlisted man in the South Korean air force. Inspector Javert, the detective who hounds Valjean, is portrayed as an over-eager duty officer. Cosette, who in the original is Valjean's adopted daughter, in this version becomes his girlfriend and fellow member of the military. The story's tension, which is not particularly compelling but provides enough opportunity for five full musical numbers, has Valjean struggling to balance his duty to finish shoveling snow with his desire to spend some time with Cosette.

Military service is mandatory for young men in South Korea, which maintains one of the world's highest military participation rates to deter, and remain ready for, a hostile and heavily armed North. Preparing for a second Korean War might be important, but it leaves the South's hundreds of thousands of standing military personnel with a lot of free time.

The South Korean military occasionally puts on these sorts of shows. And not just because they have the free time. Musical performances are an established practice for dealing with the natural anxiety that some young men feel on leaving their homes – often, their parents' homes – to serve arduous terms in Spartan conditions.

Last year, several U.S. social media sites discovered a video of uniformed South Korean soldiers devolving into tears at a pop group's surprise performance. Here's part of what I wrote at the time about why these sorts of displays, though perhaps jarring to American eyes, are part of life in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces:

Unlike members of the all-volunteer U.S. military, these young men didn't sign up to live in cramped bunkers far from home, didn't sign up to stand across the de-militarized zone from trigger-happy North Koreans, and would probably rather be back home. A taste of something more care-free, even youthful, is a welcome chance to put the hardship of conscription and possibly war aside for a few hours. So it's no wonder that these events are pretty common. ...

Getting worked into a joyous frenzy over an all-girl pop group might seem strange to Americans unfamiliar with the hardships of conscription, but it can be "an experience that takes you back to being normal," Snyder explained. "These are people who, if they weren't in the service, would be walking down the street with their iPod, listening to K-pop [South Korea's famously bubblegum pop music] and planning to go to a concert with their friends on the weekend." While in the army, however, "They're in an environment where they're deprived of that baseline adult experience."

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Max Fisher · February 6, 2013