Reluctant Korean-American veteran Young Chun stands before a statue of Korea's greatest hero, the 16th century tactical genius Admiral Yi Sun-shin, in central Seoul. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

It did not cross Young Chun’s mind that he would be required to join the army when he arrived in South Korea to teach English and pay off college debts.

But the then 25-year-old Korean-American, who barely spoke a word of Korean, found himself in uniform with a 24-month term ahead of him – including a deployment to Afghanistan.

“It did not hit home that I would have to go into the army,” he told Asia Times. “Then I got my draft papers in the mail – and a note that I was blocked from leaving the country.”

Other Korean-Americans in South Korea are getting drafted – and thousands more ethnic Koreans resident in the country may do too as Seoul, trapped in a downward demographic spiral, seeks manpower.

One way forward is the conscription of naturalized-Korean males working in the world’s 11th largest economy – but overhanging the issue is the scandal of a draft-dodging Korean-American K-pop star.

You’re in the army now

Unbeknownst to Chun, his birth – to Korean-American parents in the US – had been registered on the family registry, by persons unknown, in Korea. That made him eligible to serve. Military service is unpopular in Korea. Duty is harsh, the pay minuscule and tales of verbal, physical and sexual abuse are rampant.

“I was in denial, I was sure it was a mistake,” Chun recalled of his 2004 call-up. Desperate, he traveled to a US base in South Korea to volunteer for the US Army. He was sworn in under the flag but was halted by immigration authorities as he sought to fly home. “I was a US soldier for a day,” he said.

His mother contacted the State Department – to no avail. His choices were stark. “It was either do years in the army or do years in jail.” He chose the former option.

Five-week basic training was doubly harsh. Not only was Chun older than most recruits, he was monolingual. “I was not knowing what the instructors were saying, I was copying what others were doing and being yelled at,” he said. “The instructors would pick on me, ridicule me.”

It took Chun 15 seconds just to reel off his ID number. “There was a degree of suspicion: They thought I was faking it,” he said. “It was depressing, bewildering – I’d be thinking, ‘You’ve got another 729 days of this.’”

Things worsened after he was assigned to a unit. “I was a slave, at the bottom of the barrel, constantly getting yelled at,” he said.

Deeply depressed, he volunteered for Afghanistan, where a South Korean engineering unit was doing reconstruction. That offered not just an escape, of sorts, but financial benefits.

Like most conscripts, Chun was earning under $20 per month and deployment pay was $1,200. For six months, he was finally able to communicate as a translator with allied troops. However, he could barely interpret back into Korean.

Post-deployment, Chun’s commander granted him leave in the US. “Desertion did cross my mind,” he admitted. “But I had less than a year to go, and it felt like it would have all been a waste.”

His final months in uniform were easier. His Korean had improved, and he was a sergeant. Yet, after demobilization, Chun found he could not hold dual nationality. He chose to retain his US citizenship.

To serve or not to serve?

Like Japan’s, South Korea’s demographics are plummeting. In 2017, there were 350,000 males in their 20s eligible for conscription, and by 2022, there will be less than 250,000.

While Seoul bulks up on high-tech assets to cover falling bayonet strength, studies are being conducted on lowering physical and other requirements. These include putting naturalized Koreans in uniform.

On November 6, an official from the Military Manpower Commission, or MMC, told local media that revisions to regulations will enable the induction of naturalized Koreans to “… strengthen the sense of duty and responsibility of the naturalized citizens, and consider fairness in military service between the natives and the naturalized.”

Approximately 1,000 people aged 35 or under get naturalized every year, reports state, but without detailing the female-male ratio.

Who should serve? 2018 alterations to F4 visas – offered to persons with an ethnic Korean parent, granting them residence and work, but not voting rights – appear to have caused some confusion.

Asia Times sought clarity from Immigration Authorities in vain, but a long-term Korean-American resident of Seoul, who spoke anonymously, said it had taken far longer to renew his F4 visa this year than in previous years, and he received conflicting information from two consulates.

Jason Lim, a US-based Korean-American contributor to Seoul-based Korean Times,  wrote in  recent column of his surprise to learn his son automatically qualified for Korean citizenship as his mother held South Korean nationality. Korean law requires the boy to serve, unless he revokes his Korean citizenship by age 18. However, in “the ultimate Catch-22,” he would have to register with Seoul to revoke that citizenship, Lim wrote.

The website of South Korea’s San Fransisco Consulate offers some guidance. It notes that “a child whose parents are South Korean born” has dual nationality, and males who have not done military service cannot receive an F4 until they are 41 – ie, too old to serve. Second-generation Koreans residing in Korea, regardless of where they are born and even if they emigrated overseas as toddlers, must undertake military duty.

There is no related public data, but some are already being impacted, Chun said, citing one Korean-American now serving. “He was doing a PhD in Korea, and when he went to renew his visa, was told he had to go into the army,” Chun said. “He did not want to waste four years of study, so he went.”

Another Korean-American recently married a Korean in South Korea and obtained an apartment, Chun said. After receiving his draft papers, he fled.

Current policy appears self-defeating. One reason for the F4 visa was to lure useful or qualified overseas Koreans to the “motherland.” Now, military service is pushing them away.

One high-value Korean-American laid out his misery in a social media post obtained by Asia Times. An executive at a global tech company, he was informed in 2019 – after almost five years of living in South Korea – that he was required to serve.

His message reads, in part: “The past few days have been an absolute nightmare as I come to terms with leaving a country I love so much. We have looked into every option, but there are no solutions. Seoul is my home and it tears me apart that I have to leave.”

The ‘patriotic’ star who wasn’t

The low numbers who naturalize every year indicate that manpower demand is not the central factor. Many allege the “Steve Yoo case” is driving policy.

Yoo, who grew up in Los Angeles, was an early-wave K-pop singer. Portraying a wholesome image, he vowed publicly to do his duty –  then took out US citizenship. The public was incensed. Authorities banned him from entering South Korea in 2002.

Yoo, whose career dived, sued Seoul for denying him an F4. In November, South Korea’s Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court. Yoo is now too old to serve, but within days of the court decision, a public petition gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures demanding his entry ban remain.

Prior to 2002 it not been hard to wriggle out of military service, Chun said – particularly following the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis, when recruitment surged as unemployment bit.

“At that time, celebrities could use any flimsy excuse to get out – then came Steve Yoo,” said Chun. “That changed everything. After that, the government wanted to catch anyone they could.”

In South Korea, where a “haves-vs-have-nots” narrative carries potent emotive weight, stars were in the firing line. Rain and G-Dragon donned camo, Psy had to serve twice, after he allegedly enjoyed a cushy posting in his first term. Global superstars BTS are unlikely to win exemptions.

“I don’t know if [Yoo] understands how he changed Korean society,” Chun said. “He changed lives – including mine. I went because he didn’t go.”

Feelings run high. “Don’t mention that fucker’s name to me!” snarled another Korean-American when asked about Yoo.

Security vs ethnicity

The MMC will clarify its position on drafting ethnic Koreans next year. And there are big questions. Gender equality is one – only males must serve. Security is another.

“In the HQ Company, I had access to secret documents,” Chun recalled. “I thought it was odd.”

Still, Korean-Americans hail from a country allied to South Korea. That is not the case for Korea’s biggest group of overseas Koreans, Korean-Chinese, who are widely employed in the catering and construction sectors.

That raises security implications. Not only are Beijing and Seoul ideologically opposed, some allege that North Koreans infiltrate the South in the guise of Korean-Chinese.

Chun, the reluctant veteran, now sees pros and cons in his experience. It forced him to learn Korean and compelled him to write a book, The Accidental Citizen Soldier. However, it distanced him from home. “When I got back to the US, I felt I did not fit in,” he said. “I wanted a new start.”

Returning to Seoul, he entered graduate school and is now applying for a PhD in linguistics. But despite his service record and language abilities, he has not adopted Korean thinking.

“It is a different mindset from a Western mindset. In the US, if you are born there, you are American. In Korea, it’s about ‘blood,’” he said. “Now, Koreans are imposing this on other people – like F4 visa holders.”

South Korean military service required Chun to learn the Korean language – and inspired him to pen a memoir. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

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