Military service in Korea: frustrating obligation or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Mandatory military service in Korea is regarded universally as a wearisome and duty for men which sets them back by a few years in the race to find a job in this age of competition. But unit of the Korean military has decided that military service could be something so much more than that.

The 3rd Engineer Brigade of the Korean Army, stationed in Inje, Gangwondo, has started a new program to make military service more than endless chores and marches in the mud.

All soldiers are required to write a life plan for themselves and them must put down on their list exactly what they will do each day, and how it will contribute to their role in the battalion, and to their careers. Everything they do, no matter how tedious, is linked explicitly to their personal development and their futures.

When soldiers make up their personal plan, it must include a final goal for society. They need to articulate a vision for better world. At the same time, the plan should include their own career, putting forth specific goals for what they hope to achieve in the future. The plans do not have to be ambitious, but they should be concrete (what I will do in one year, or ten years).

The planning is not perfunctory. Each private has a one-one session with his commanding officer to go over the life plan and then they must present once a quarter in front of all the other soldiers about their progress.

Private Kim Soo-Chan notes, "I never had someone tell me to think about my future before. This experience has forced me to think about what I am doing and why." Private Kim now has plans to go into retail sales for clothes.

Private Im Taemin says that his work here has given him a chance to grow confident about his work and to take pride in the achievements of his team. He has thrived in the swim club, becoming an agile swimmer although he had not known how to swim before he came.

Soldiers get up each morning at 6:30 AM for morning call, eat breakfast and then meet up to start work their work at 8:20 AM. The routine is standard, but there are a few critical differences. When the soldiers do their calisthenics together, one soldier is selected who must identify a fellow soldier who has made a real accomplishment. This recognition of effort is linked to a program for giving compliment cards to people who try which can have real meaning in terms of time off or other benefits. The cards are awarded by commanders, but also by fellow soldiers. As it is battalion #125, every day, each soldier is expected to give two compliments and five words of appreciation.

Last year the country governor of Inje awarded 15 prizes to soldiers who painted very creative murals on the walls of some houses nearby. A soldier also won a prize for a UCC program that was presented at a local event. The time off could have been used for sports, but many soldiers want to engage with the local community as part of their mission. All these activities create a sense of achievement, of responsibility, and of pride for working together as a team. But there is more. There are walks outside when soldiers are encouraged to think more deeply about man's relationship with nature. Those discussions include environmental issues of concern. Some of the soldiers find these moments to be their first time ever having serious conversations about the world with their peers.

One enthusiastic proponent of this new policy is Lt. Col. Kang Kyung-il. Lt. Col. Kang explains, "I want soldiers to continue their experiments after their service, learn new skills that will mean they look on their military service as a real chance to learn, to create something new. Their own future."

Kang considers military service to be a tremendous opportunity for Korean youth that is often squandered. "Here is a moment when these young people come together with peers who they have not had any previous relationship and they are supposed to carry out a task for the common good--to break out of a world that encourages selfishness. In many of their lives, military service is the only time they have any sort of discipline or direction, the only time they are asked to work together as a team around the clock."

The organization forced by military service can be a perfect opportunity to give youth a sense of direction and to encourage them to take control of their lives. Kang explains, "Military service may seem like a burden, but it is a unique opportunity for men to work together with their fellow citizens as a unit for a common goal."

The hierarchy is clear in the military, but the purpose of the work is always defined as being for the common good. The 3rd Engineer Brigade has a code of conduct: no blame, not complaining, and always an optimistic attitude. The highest priority is real grit, a positive attitude. Many soldiers take this slogan to heart."

This ideal is summed up in the motto of the battalion: "Cleanliness." The motto is not only about keeping the entire camp clean, it also means not slandering each other, or indulging in smoking or other bad habits.

Some members of the battalion dream of extending this program throughout the military and making it a model for how youth can take control of their lives and thereby reinvigorate both society and government in the process.