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
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.
"It's a pretty Spartan life," according to David Maxwell, a former colonel in the U.S. army and now a Georgetown professor who did five tours in South Korea from 1986 through 2007. That Spartan life might inform their less-than-Rambo-like reaction to the all-girl pop group. Unlike members of the all-volunteer U.S. military, these young men didn't sign up to live in cramped bunkers far from home, didn't sign up to stand across the de-militarized zone from trigger-happy North Koreans, and would probably rather be back home. A taste of something more care-free, even youthful, is a welcome chance to put the hardship of conscription and possibly war aside for a few hours. So it's no wonder that these events are pretty common.
"These types of events are not at all unusual," Maxwell told me. "Conscripts do not get a lot of free time so there are organized events like this usually on Sundays at military bases all over Korea. Singers, singing groups, comedians and actors of various levels of fame perform all the time for Soldiers." As for the troops' reactions, "It may seem unusual from an American perspective but it is pretty routine in Korea." The stigma against male shows of emotion in public, so prevalent in the West we often forget it exists, is far less of a factor in Korean culture. During his 20 years working with the South Korean military, Maxwell said, "I've seen it many, many times."
When I sent the video to Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said it was "almost exactly what I was expecting to see." He encountered one of these "how should we put it, community-based responses" on his first trip to South Korea in 1987, at a university pep rally. "Korea is a more collective-oriented society than the U.S.," he explained, and that collectivism can be a real asset for young men forced into service and dealing with "the experience of collective loneliness."
Getting worked into a joyous frenzy over an all-girl pop group might seem strange to Americans unfamiliar with the hardships of conscription, but it can be "an experience that takes you back to being normal," Snyder explained. "These are people who, if they weren't in the service, would be walking down the street with their iPod, listening to K-pop [South Korea's famously bubblegum pop music] and planning to go to a concert with their friends on the weekend." While in the army, however, "They're in an environment where they're deprived of that baseline adult experience."
"I think it's pretty representative of [South] Korea in general," suggested Adrian Hong, a prominent observer of all things Korea and a Korean-American. The video is "not anything out of the ordinary for what Korean youth are going through." He explained, "Korean youth tend to increasingly be in arrested development."
North Korea is, in many ways, still stuck in July 28, 1953, the day after an armistice ended the Korean war. But South Korea has moved on. The country is no longer organized around its military (South Korea was principally a military dictatorship until the late 1980s) and it is no longer especially passionate about unification. As the North Korean threat recedes from daily life in the south, breakneck development there has shifted much of society's focus to economic competition and creature comforts.
South Korea is not as militarized as it once was and that's a good thing: South Korea was, only a generation ago, one of the poorest societies on Earth, and is now one of its freest and most developed. But it means that its young conscripts are a little less worried about preparing for war and a little more interested in distractions. As the New York Times put it in July, after a spate of ugly accidents and suicides within the South Korean military, the "sacred duty" is no longer so sacred:
These episodes, and similar ones in the army, have amplified a problem faced by South Korea's 650,000-member military, a force intended to deter aggression from North Korea, with which the South never concluded a formal peace after the 1950-53 Korean War. Increasingly, the military's ranks are filled with young men who have not experienced war and no longer consider their 21-month compulsory service a "sacred duty," as their fathers did, but rather an inconvenient interruption of their civilian lives and careers.
"They're not quite as battle-hardened and ready for war with North Korea as they used to be," Hong told me over the phone. In years past, "The South Korean military was absolutely seen as cutting edge in terms of battle-hardenedness. ... It's becoming less and less of a Spartan atmosphere." Separately, in an email, Hong described another sort of performance for young conscripts, one in which the troops act as almost game show contestants trying to identify their mother. There is a real sweetness to it, but also a certain unmissable infantilization of these young men.
Yes, this type of show is a uniquely South Korean phenomenon. Because the draft applies to all young men, it's a rite of passage to go through a period where they all miss "society" (as in kpop, video games, etc) but also miss their moms. There was a long-running series (I imagine it may still be on) that did the same show, but had a mother hide behind a curtain, give hints, and eventually call out their son, having soldiers come up to stage if they thought it was their mother. The show would end with the big reveal and a lot of emotion, and usually tears.
Last month, South Korean Major General Chun In-Bum marked his retirement by giving a interview to U.S. military communications officers from the "Pentagon Channel." When asked whether there was a "weak link" in the South Korean military, he answered without pause, "We have been too good at our job. We've kept peace that the general population has forgotten is not free." He urged, "Now I think we recognize that we need to teach our younger people that, truly, freedom is not free."
Even if he was speaking in clichés so stale they could only come from a military man, Chun's concern about South Korean readiness is not an uncommon one. "It still doesnt register that [North Korea] is an active threat," Hong sighed. "So you'll see Korean youth not taking it as seriously" as they once did, or perhaps should have. He cited ten years of "Sunshine Policy," a South Korean initiative for detente with the north or at least stability, an effort that required convincing many South Korean voters that the north was not the threat it once had been.
"The Koreans are going through the same thing that we are," Maxwell, the retired U.S. army colonel, told me, referencing not just recent Pentagon budget cuts but a general indifference to the hardships of U.S. troops abroad. "People question, do we really need such a large army?" The difference, of course, is that certainly Iraq and arguably Afghanistan were wars of choice; South Korea is preparing for a second Korean War precisely because it wants to avoid it.
Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the above video might look hopelessly foreign to Americans today, but it might not have to Americans of the 1960s, when USO shows for the conscripted U.S. force in Vietnam sometimes drew similarly fevered responses. "What I saw [in the video] was not surprising to me," he gently insisted when I asked about cultural differences between Korea and the West. When I pointed out that tens of thousands of fascinated Americans seemed to watching the video every few hours, he suggested that this says as much about Americans as it does about Koreans. "The popularity of this suggests that, in a voluntary military environment" like America's, there is a "disconnect between service and broader society."
Of course, U.S. society in the 1960s did connect with the plight of its young men drafted to Vietnam, in large part because so many Americans were dying for such an unnecessary war. The national outrage ended the war and the draft. In South Korea, the draft is generally perceived to be necessary and very few South Koreans are dying, so there is little national resistance to forced conscription, though plenty of bumper-sticker sympathy for the conscripts. College-aged men like those in this video are hauled off to bases and encampments and patrols, year after year, whether they are emotionally prepared or not, to people a sprawling defensive army their country probably needs but their society has lost interest in. An occasional moment of televised regression seems like the least we can grant them.