These new South Korean military recruits arrived at this basic training facility five weeks earlier, pausing their lives for 21 months of mandatory service, the consequence of a constant threat of war on a divided peninsula. The recruits, many at least, simply hoped that normalcy would await them at the other end. But South Korean military officials describe the mandatory service as less an interruption than a conversion: Citizens become soldiers, and during five weeks of basic training, the recruits pitch tents, shoot guns, climb ropes, walk 18 miles through darkness and emerge as different people.
“You are reborn as soldiers,” a commanding officer told the recruits as they graduated from basic training.
South Korea’s compulsory military service remains controversial, with politicians debating its merits and dangers. In the meantime, conscription leads to something less hypothetical: a cycle in which men enter the service, adapt to lives of potential danger, then try to re-adapt to the lives they knew before.
Particularly in the past year, with 50 South Korean service members killed because of North Korean attacks, some analysts see further confrontation as inevitable. In that climate, South Korea’s mandatory service has become particularly harrowing.
“If you fight the enemy,” the commanding offer told the recruits, “you must win.”
A firsthand account
That same Wednesday, a 22-year-old who had just completed his military term took a test at Keimyung University — in polymer chemistry. He had spent the previous night at the library, where he often spends his nights, because he worries that the university president won’t approve of his grade-point average. Ahn Jae-geun gets more attention than most students here because he’s on a full scholarship. And he received his scholarship as a gesture of appreciation, one of the many unforeseen consequences of surviving a North Korean torpedo attack.
This is what happened, according to a report compiled after joint investigations by 73 experts from four nations: On March 26, 2010, at 9:22 p.m., a 290-foot warship called the Cheonan was ripped apart. A torpedo, rigged with 550 pounds of explosives, sent off a shock wave right underneath the vessel, and as the boat split, a 330-foot wall of water shot straight into the sky. There were 104 sailors on board — one guy taking a shower; one playing cellphone games; several in the gym — and 46 did not survive.
This is what happened, according to Ahn, sitting at a Starbucks not far from his university: The boat, on which Ahn had been stationed for almost a year, was patrolling waters near the maritime border. There was a loud bang, and the boat tilted almost 90 degrees. Everything went dark, and the contents of the boat — people, supplies, weapons, beds — came sliding toward one side, and some sailors were crushed under the weight of objects. Ahn, in the artillery chamber room, groped for a flashlight, then found his way to the top level of the boat, which was on its side. He held on like a kid on monkey bars.