“Y our parents and siblings sleep tight, putting their trust in you!”
An outsized billboard backdrops long lines of young men with closecropped
hair striding five deep forward, addressing them with its deeply
emotional message. They look tense. But they are neither prisoners of war
nor convicts toting their meager possessions in small shopping bags. They
are candidates for military duty, young men who will give two years or more
of their youthful prime in service to protect the national community, so “parents
and siblings [can] sleep tight.” This scene is repeated every Monday and
Thursday at the Army Training Center in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province,
in the coastal western flank of the country. In addition to the billboard
signs greeting the new recruits, there is a display of military equipment,
weapons, combat uniforms, and other gear that they will be using once they
enter the army.
In the Republic of Korea, every healthy young man over the age of 18 must
go through this rite of passage. Induction day brings a curiously festive air
when some 7,000 people gather in town: parents, other relatives, and girlfriends
come to see off the 2,000 military candidates. When the admission
ceremony is over and the families have left, the new recruits join their battalions,
spend the next three days going through physical examinations and
aptitude tests, and receive their military supplies. Then they begin five weeks
of hard training.
Two weeks later, the parents are notified by phone which regiment their
sons have been assigned to and the recruits’ civilian clothes are sent home
with a letter. When the parents receive this parcel of clothing, their worries
take hold. This signals the start of almost two years, sometimes longer, of
military duty that could put their sons in harm’s way. But over the 60-some
years since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, people have become
accustomed to living with the threat of war; terrorist violence in faraway
countries seems more frightening and immediate.
The Nonsan Army Training Center is one of the largest military training
centers in the world. Covering a vast area 76 times the size of Sangam World
Cup Stadium in Seoul, this huge complex has a resident population of new
recruits, or trainee soldiers, and instructors that almost matches that of the
nearby town of 16,500. It is currently responsible for the rigorous basic training
of some 45 percent of the nation’s annual 125,000 army recruits, so far
producing some 7.8 million new soldiers since it opened in 1951.
The lingering mystery is that a remarkable number of Korean males who
manage to get exempted from this coming-of-age rite by failing the physical
examination later presume themselves as leaders of society.