Americans are entranced by a video of South Korean troops reacting emotionally to a surprise concert by an all-girl pop group, but there's more than just cultural differences at play
South Korean soldiers react to the arrival of Girls' Generation, a pop group / YouTube
In late December, a few hundred soldiers with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces put on their fatigues and assembled in a large hall. The leader of neighboring North Korea, with which the south has officially remained at war for six decades, had died suddenly, putting much of the world on high alert over Pyongyang's uncertain leadership and unpredictable million-man army. The South Korean troops sat on the ground in neat rows, stone-faced, and faced the stage. Then, once they had gathered, loudspeakers began blasting the day's dramatic message: a modern and saccharine cover of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." The nine college-aged members of the South Korean super group Girls' Generation marched through the hall and onto the stage. The crowd instantly devolved into apparent ecstasy, with soldiers cheering, jumping into the air, and singing along to every word of the poppy number that followed. Some dropped to their knees and pounded the ground in disbelief. One made a heart with his hands.
The concert was aired on South Korean TV as part of a Christmas Eve special, "Girls' Generation's Christmas Fairy Tale." This Friday, someone posted a video of the concert to YouTube, where it got over one million views on the first day and another million since, much it on South Korean blogs and especially on U.S. social media, where Americans have been marveling at what appears to be a military culture far different from our own. They're right, but not for the reasons they might imagine. As is so often the case with culture shocks, the differences are not quite what they seem, and the truth might surprise both sides.
The Republic of Korea Armed Forces is a conscript army. It is the sixth largest military on Earth (Russia's is fifth), larger than the British, Iranian, Japanese, or Israeli forces. Including reserves, South Korea has the second highest military participation rate in the world. Ranked first is North Korea, which has repeatedly threatened to destroy its southern neighbor and sometimes looks like it just might. South Korean conscripts, charged with keeping the tenuous peace, serve for a little over two years, often between their sophomore and junior years at college.