News / Asia

South Korean Military Conscripts Keep Close Eye on North

A South Korean Army soldier uses binoculars to watch Northern side after news reporting about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a guard post in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea in Cheolwon, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 19, 2
A South Korean Army soldier uses binoculars to watch Northern side after news reporting about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a guard post in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea in Cheolwon, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 19, 2
Jason Strother

For a country that has technically remained at war since 1953, military conscription in South Korea has long been a way of life. All able-bodied South Korean men serve roughly two years in a branch of the armed forces, giving them a unique perspective on the country's relationship with the North. Following the arrival of a new, untested leader in North Korea, several conscripts spoke about their concerns for the future.

Kim Min-jun says his life will soon change. Just a few days ago, the 21-year-old received a letter informing him that his mandatory military duty begins in February.

Kim says even though all able-bodied South Korean men eventually serve in the military, he had hoped this day would not come.   

“When I was very young, I thought when I become 20 years old, which is the age you have to complete the duty of military, I thought our nation would be unified with North Korea," he said. "So it doesn't really matter to me, I thought. That's what I thought when I was 10 years old.”

Some observers say relations between the two Koreas are now actually worse than they were a decade ago.

And with uncertainty surrounding the North’s power transition following the death of Kim Jong Il in December, Kim and other South Korean men of conscription age are questioning how Pyongyang’s new leadership will affect their lives.

North Korea’s military is twice the size of the South’s and it also has a nuclear weapons program. Those military assets are now controlled by Kim Jong Un, who is only in is late 20s.

That concerns 25-year-old Choi Chanyoung.

“The problem is that he’s too young, in the young times, in the young ages, you can be aggressive, take risks, adventures, so what I was worrying about is that he’s young he wants to do something, he wants to show something, so he could accidentally do something,” he said.

Choi, who already completed his military duty but could be recalled in the case of new hostilities, worries about another artillery attack like the one in 2010 on Yeonpyeong Island.  Four South Korean marines and civilians died in the shelling.

But conscript Kim says he doubts all-out war will erupt.    

“Generally worried, about this country and what’s happening on the peninsula," he said.  "But I don't expect something to happen in my days”

Many South Koreans do not see the North as a threat, says 24-year-old Jung Jae-kwang. He says he also felt that way until he started his military service, which can change one's perspective on the North.

“Basically there are two groups in South Korean men. One group is the one who completed their duty and those who didn’t complete the duty," he said. "When those who didn't complete their duty say things about North Korea, the ones who did their service criticize, like you don’t know anything because you didn't go to the military, and those kind of things.  Before and after the military my perspective changed a lot”

Jung says one reason why young South Koreans do not worry about the North is because of what they study in school. He says most students prefer to focus on math or science rather than on history and politics.

Over the next decade South Korea’s Ministry of Defense plans to reduce military troop levels and promote officer training programs in order to rely less on a conscript army. The government here says it will also develop and purchase more advanced military technologies in order to counter North Korean provocations.      

Conscript Kim Min-jun says he is not exactly looking forward to his military service, but understands it is the best way to defend the nation.

“Very personally, I don’t like it. But thinking about the country, yeah there are no options, no other options yeah, I’ll have to accept it,” he says.

Kim says for now he just wants to enjoy his last two months of freedom before his service begins.

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