It’s Friday afternoon, and snow is falling outside the window of her Roush dorm room as freshman YeJi Park, sitting in her desk chair, pulls out her phone.
“I have the picture that he is wearing his uniform,” she says. “I’ll show you.”
YeJi begins scrolling through her images to the most recent picture of her big brother in his new Korean Army attire.
“There he is,” she says to herself as a smile breaks across her face.
It is most likely the last “new” picture she will receive of her big brother Paul for the next 21 months. Why? Like all Korean men, Paul is required to serve in the South Korean Military for roughly two years.
He officially joined the army Feb. 4, leaving in the middle of his junior year.
The idea of being forced to serve in the military for any period of time is a foreign concept for Americans, yet it is the reality known by South Korean men. According to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook on South Korea, under military service age and obligation, it states, “20-30 years of age for compulsory military service, with middle school education required. 18-26 years of age for voluntary military service.”
“Paul knew he would have to go into the military,” YeJi said. “We all knew that he has to go since he is a boy. We didn’t know that it would be this sad.”
Freshman Sangeun Woo is also from South Korea. He said the South Korean government contacts the men so they know when to report for service.
“When you become 19-years-old, the government sends a letter to your home to take a physical test to see if you are fit for the Army,” he said. “Then you have to go to the Army six months after the letter arrives.”
The physical test looks for any diseases or medical concerns that could hinder one’s ability to serve in the South Korean military. For example, poor eye sight and a severely injured back could help land a military office job or in some extreme cases exempt you from military services.
“There are some ways you can get out of it,” Woo said. “It’s unlikely to happen, but if you get married to an American you don’t have to go to the Army. If you have more than two children before you are 23 or 24, you don’t have to go.”
There are also ways to postpone your military service which is what Woo hopes to do.
“You can be excused if you are studying abroad in America,” he said. “I’m excused. I’ll get a letter during this year, and then I’ll take a fitness test this summer, and then I’ll let them know I’m in America studying abroad.”
At the end of World War II, a democratic-based government, the Republic of Korea, was set up in the southern half of Korea while a communist-style government was installed in the north. US troops and United Nations forces helped defend South Korea from an invasion from the north during the Korean War 1950-53. A 1953 armistice split the Korean peninsula along a demilitarized zone, which is the border between the north and the south.
When asked if she is worried about the safety of her brother, YeJi immediately said she was always worried.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “The war is not actually over. You call it armistice. It’s been like this for more than 60 years. The North Korean government is getting crazier year by year. So I always worry about him and even about my family.”
Due to the distance, it is nearly impossible for YeJi to contact her brother. She stays in contact with her friends and family through Facebook and Skype, but she said even snail mail seems pointless at times.
“I would tell him how much I miss him and how much I love him,” she said. “I think I’d talk to him about Joyful Noise. He went back to Korea on Dec. 19, and since then kept asking me about them like ‘Are they okay?’ ‘Are they doing great?’”
Paul was the lead guitarist in Joyful Noise, the university’s chapel band, during first semester.
When asked about the mindset of serving in the Korean military, Woo likened it to pressing a pause button on life.
“I’m proud to serve in the military of my own country, but 21 months is a long time,” Woo said. “I think it’s a pause of my life and career.”
“They don’t want to go,” Yeji said. “I mean, who would want to go and spend 20 months in the camp? But they know that they have to go, and they have no choice unless they are really sick, but they are not sick.”
When asked if most people stay in the Army or get out at the end of the 21 months, Woo said they typically leave.
“Everybody gets out from the military,” he said. “Only if they find interest or think that Army is their job then they will stay and get paid afterwards.”
Yeji said that not having her brother here has been harder than she anticipated.
“We were not this close before I came here,” she said. “When we were in the same high school we didn’t really talk to each other … We’ve gotten really close since being in America together. When he finally joined the Army, I cried. I actually cried. Because I can’t see him unless I go to Korea and visit him where he is.”
Paul plans to return to the university once he completes his service to the ROK Army.
He and his sister will likely graduate together in 2017.