South Korea's Forgotten War

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The battle over the 38th parallel is fading from memory -- even as its legacy continues to dominate life on the Peninsula.

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South Korean soldiers are seen through barbed wire at their checkpoint near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on November 26, 2010. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

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.

Many young South Korean men today describe the two years they are required to serve in the military as "wasted time."

"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.

If North Korea were to storm into South Korea by land, as it did in the 1950 invasion that escalated into the Korean War, the men at the 38th parallel would be the first to see action. The duty schedules are demanding there, and Lee and his companions often had to wake up in the middle of the night for shifts on the border.

Although it is said that this is one of the world's tensest borders, most have served their two years without many incidents. But two of the most provocative North Korean aggressions since the 1953 armistice happened during Lee's term at the border: the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March 2010, which killed 46 seamen, and the shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010, which killed two marines and two civilians, and injured others. These were contained incidents involving the navy and marines along the sea border west of the Korean peninsula, but ground forces along the 38th parallel and everywhere else were on alert, ready to go to war at the government's word.

"When the Cheonan (the South Korean navy ship) sank, we really got ourselves ready for war, and then nothing happened," said Lee. "Two-and-a-half weeks passed without anything, and during those days we couldn't even take our boots off. It was nasty -- we were dirty and greasy, waiting for days ... but nothing happened." Lee said the anger in the beginning eventually gave way to frustration.

"These are high school graduates and college freshmen who barely know what the country stands for, doing long shifts on the border, and they're tired," Lee added.

He recalled thinking that it could have been him or his friends on that ship -- he had almost enlisted in the navy -- and being upset about the men who died. But even after living these scenarios and serving under extreme pressure, Lee admitted that most don't think much about the North after getting discharged from service.

"They're more concerned about getting a job, studying, building up their resumes," Lee said. "We go into the army with the mentality that we are giving up two years -- those two years are dead." This mentality does not seem to change after service. The two weeks of smelly boots and not showering become stories told over drinks.

"I had a lot of thinking time during those two years," Lee said. "I got to thinking about the kids on the other side [of the border]. They are the same."

Lee's experience at the front lines led him to shift his academic trajectory as he prepared to go back to school. His two years at the border were difficult and allowed him to grow "stronger psychologically and physically," but he said he thinks it also changed what he wanted to study. He is switching out of a psychology degree to pursue subjects more along the lines of international studies.

"I had a lot of thinking time during those two years," Lee said. "I got to thinking about the kids on the other side [of the border]. They are the same." Lee described the North Korean soldiers he saw from observation post photos at the border, and the way they diligently swept the snow at their guard posts, just the way he and his companions did. "They probably complained as much as we did about long duty hours."

Reunification on the Horizon?

South Korean children have been taught in public school that the North Korean children are their poorer brothers and sisters, and that someday they must seek a happy ending as one unified nation. But for some young South Koreans, the notion that they share a common destiny with their mysterious northern neighbors is perplexing, and abstract at best.

"Reunification would be a really bad thing for South Korea," said Park Sung Woo, a 24-year-old university student studying life sciences and biotechnology in Seoul. "It's not really our responsibility to take care of North Korea, and I think most people would think this way -- at least among my friends from the Army."

He concedes, however, that it is probably an important issue. He considers himself emotionally detached, acknowledging that he might think differently if his family had North Korean ties.

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

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