Doyeun Kim: South Korea's Forgotten War

Doyeun Kim is a student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Many young South Korean men today describe the two years they are required to serve in the military as "wasted time." It is an imposition on their prime years -- when they could be getting ahead in their education, getting a job, or meeting their life partner, they spend 21 to 24 months in a sort of man camp. Of course, they are trained to defend the country from North Korea, but that is usually the third or fourth thing they mention, when asked to talk about what the military experience means for them.

"The day I completed my service was the best day of my life by far," said Chung Minjae, 24, who served 23 months as a Korean Augmentation To the United States Army (KATUSA) at the American base in Seoul from 2008 to 2009.

KATUSA conscripts serve alongside approximately 28,500 U.S. troops that remain stationed in South Korea today since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, in 1953. The American presence and joint operation with South Korea continue to play a major role in deterrence efforts against aggression from North Korea.

"The hardest thing being in the army is that you are stuck in one place [...] for two years while everyone else continues to move on with their lives," Chung told me. "Once I was done, I could finally move forward, along with everybody else." This is probably a heightened feeling in a speed-obsessed, extremely modern city like Seoul, where two years out of the civilian loop can leave you technologically and socially disoriented.

Chung said he felt an "enormous burden being lifted" from his shoulders the day he finished his military duty, which he compared to being grounded for two years. He is now finishing his bachelor's degree in East Asian international relations at Yonsei University in Korea, from which he had taken a break in order to enlist.

Still, a 23-month KATUSA experience is hardly anything to complain about. Most men end up in the regular ROKA (Republic of Korea Army), where the quality of time-biding is said to be several times inferior. While Chung might have been bored with mostly administrative duties at the American base, Lee Seung Joon, 25, recalls long and irregular duty hours that disrupted his sleep. Lee served 24 months in an ROKA artillery division near the 38th parallel.

The 38th parallel marks the highly fortified no-man's land between South Korea and North Korea. It was a line drawn by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War days, from which sprung a Stalinist regime to the north and a U.S.-backed democracy to the south...

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