This article first appeared in Critic Issue 11, 2017.
Call me paranoid but airports always make me nervous. There is the ever-present fear that you might have forgotten something. That you might be late. That you might miss your flight having to go through yet another security checkpoint. And there was that one time when I was 19 when I was held in an interrogation room in Incheon International Airport before my flight.
My crime was the same as that of the 640,000 young men who are currently conscripted – that I was a Korean male of military age. The Republic of Korea (South) was forged in the bitter crucible of a civil war which has been on ceasefire since ’53, with both sides signing an armistice that bisected the country at the 38th parallel – 50 miles north of Seoul – into the two Koreas we have today.
Since then, all Korean men between the ages of 20-30 are to serve in the 군대 (Guhn-Deh) the national armed services - ranging from Army and Navy to the Airforce and Riot Police - for a period of around two years (depending on the branch). For many young Koreans, the spectre of conscription hangs over their lives, as it is equal parts a rite of passage that turns boys into men, and an inescapable chore that they must do for fear of the consequences.
When your draft letter comes you have to report for a medical examination to determine what branches of the service you are fit to serve in. It is then your duty as a citizen to be physically isolated from the rest of society, with restricted access to media, and to perform gruelling menial tasks for a monthly salary ranging between 143-189 dollars for the next two years. I later found out that it was my neighbour in my apartment complex who had reported me to the authorities.
A tired looking 아저씨 (Ah-Josh-E – think stereotypical dad) walked into the room in a dark business suit. He wore no formal identification or badge but, given the gravity of the situation, I knew who he was. My interrogator. As someone born in Korea, but who had emigrated to New Zealand at the age of three, I fell into the grey zone of dual citizenship. I was extraordinarily fortunate in that I had a possible way out that didn’t involve being press-ganged, or spending time in a prison cell. A luxury usually reserved for the sons of diplomats or the wealthy.
In some parts of the world citizenship comes with a cost. For 22 year old 오재환(Oh-Jae-Hwan, Korean names begin with the family name), who had spent his teenage years growing up in Beijing but who identified as Korean, it meant spending 21 months in the Army’s 28th Division. “The camp is placed in the front line of South Korea, so our division was defending the western border where Seoul could be attacked.” For Jae Hwan, North Korean sabre rattling was more than a news headline, “On August 2015, North Korea fired a missile towards our region, so we had to shoot back to threaten them.” While rumours spread that the war could be restarting at any moment in Seoul, “We were getting ready for an actual war, being put on standby for 24 hours.”
While he identifies as Korean, Jae Hwan doesn’t necessarily consider Korea home, “Although I was in Korea before 12 years old, I still have most of my teenage memories in China. I wouldn’t really consider either of these countries to be my ‘home’, but I feel more comfortable and friendly in China.” When he talks about his time in the Army, Jae Hwan laughs and admits that, “Many people were surprised I’ve done it for Korea” after all, Jae Hwan, like many Koreans who grow up overseas, had the option of obtaining residency or dual citizenship, but chose not to, “All of my family members have finished their military service. I’m the youngest in my whole family, so I was the last to go. Although they were worried that I might have a hard time, I didn’t want to disappoint my family.”
My interrogator spoke to me in Korean, asking me if I knew why I was being held. Judging from his age and appearance I knew that I had three factors working in my favour: that he was tired and overworked, that his English would most likely be quite poor, and that I sounded like a foreigner. The only legitimate strategy for me to escape was to bamboozle him and convince him that I was a 외국인 (Wae-Gug-In – a slightly derogatory term for foreigner). If I could board my flight, then once the plane was in the air I would be safe.
Growing up away from the hierarchical Confucian culture of Korea had forever marked me as an outsider when it came to my encounters with other Koreans. In a society that stresses blind obedience and respect to your superiors – whether they are older than you by a few days, or higher up the social pecking order – Korea’s brand of Confucianism has created and justified what in practice is a caste-based society. This can be seen in the language, where different levels of flowery honorifics are used to reflect the status of the person you are speaking to, and in Korean Airlines’ abysmal record of plane crashes in the ‘90s due to the co-pilots’ tendency to not speak out against their superiors, even if it meant crashing.
In such a society, your lineage (traced from your father’s side) and family are held as social markers of paramount importance and it was often these factors that dictated your destiny. For me, growing up with a single mother carried a social stigma that could not be washed away. For the sins of my father I was ostracised by Korean communities wherever I was, whether in New Zealand or Korea. In their minds my every character flaw was inexplicably tied to me growing up without a dad, and there was a condescending pity in their voices as they spoke about me, not aware that I could understand them.
There is an irony in how the teachings of Confucius, who had stressed above all else the importance of benevolence and magnanimity, like the Christian view of charity, has been warped and reinterpreted by those who claim to practice it. It was Confucius who proclaimed the belief that those in authority carry with them the ‘mandate of heaven’ – so long as they act with virtue, they hold the consent of the governed and should they lose that mandate of heaven, it is your right to rebel.
A social contract between the powerful and the powerless. That those who demand blind loyalty and obedience need to be worthy of it first, is a doctrine that has been wilfully forgotten by many modern-day Confucian practitioners.
My decision to be a draft dodger carried with it severe social backlash. Korean males who renounce their citizenship to evade the draft are viewed by some as traitors - committing treason to the 대한민국 (Dae-Han Min-Guk – the Republic of Korea) by deserting their duty. In a country where all men are expected to serve in order to call themselves men, those who do not serve will forever be blacklisted in seeking employment within the Republic.
Jae Hwan described his experiences in finding employment after his service, “Some companies will have their own resume format, and in those resumes they will ask you if you have been to the military service or not. If not, there has to be a serious reason [such as medical exemption, not seen as psychologically fit for duty, etc.] why you didn’t serve your country, and, if not, it is mostly unacceptable.” Jae Hwan thinks part of this has to do with what his time in the Army had taught him, “Most people change in a better way after the Army by learning teamwork, responsibilities, and patience. It means in Korean society; most people would prefer to hire or see people who have been in the military service rather than those who haven’t.”
The experience of many who are conscripted often boils down to individual attitude. While many view it as a hardship to be endured, Jae Hwan chose to focus on the positives, “I wanted to learn new things that I’d missed out on [from not being in Korea] and for some they are discharged as better people. So, I wanted to challenge myself.” Despite not being particularly patriotic before his time in the Army, Jae Hwan found that his time had helped him develop a sense of Korean history and culture, although he still adds, “I wouldn’t be the perfect guy to ask about Korean culture and life in Korea.”
In many ways Jae Hwan was the other side of the coin – despite not feeling like Korea was his home, Jae Hwan had chosen to do his service, and used it as an opportunity rather than a cost to himself. Even though he felt as if his conscription had interfered with his life plans, delaying his university education in Australia by two years, he felt that it had helped him develop as a person.
“Everyone used to be a normal citizen, and in just one day, their identity is changed into a soldier. People get placed in random places where they’ve never heard of before, with random people from different backgrounds in a same place with regulations to everything they do. No one can be comfortable in such a new environment.” For Jae Hwan conscription served as an equaliser that threw together Koreans from every background together and demanded that they work together for the common good.
I spoke to my interrogator in English, demanding to know why I was being held here against my will and that I did not speak 한글 (Han-Gul – the Korean language). A look of indecision passed his face, taken aback by my accent. Despite being visibly Korean here was undeniable proof that I was a foreigner. To demonstrate my point, I took out my old high school ID card to Seoul Foreign School and pointed my finger at the Korean characters for foreigner. In my back pocket, I had the paper shield of my New Zealand passport. Though I had spent the last two years in my ancestral homeland I had come as a foreigner, studied as a foreigner, and intended to leave as a foreigner.
I made this decision after my experience volunteering in orphanages in rural Korea the summer before I left. It was there I learned the price of the caste based Confucian society. Those who are orphaned - abandoned by their parents for one reason or another - are viewed as the “dust of the streets” the lowest of the low, the scions of nothing who can claim no lineage or bloodline. Growing up as an outsider had shown me the indifference and thinly veiled contempt with which Koreans treat those who do not fit within the confines of Confucian society. The pastor who led the volunteer program informed me at the end that at 18 these orphans would be cast out into the streets. With no family, they would never be accepted into universities, would never be employed by many companies and government agencies, and would be destined to be beggars and prostitutes for the crime of daring to exist.
My interrogator spoke to me in broken English, informing me that I was being detained for attempting to evade the draft and passport fraud – having not surrendered my New Zealand passport at 18 when I was legally obliged to renounce one of my citizenships. In my mind’s eye, I saw the land of my birth – where if I were to walk down the halls of my ancestors I would be just as foreign to them as they were to me. A land which treated the most vulnerable members of society with nothing more than contempt for the sins of their fathers, a government which had lost the mandate of heaven yet demanded I give up my liberty as the price of citizenship.
It was a price that I would never pay.
I invoked my right to rebellion and informed my interrogator that of my own free will and volition that I renounced my Korean citizenship and would accept exile. That as a foreign national I could not be subject to the draft, nor be detained against my will in a country that no longer had any sovereignty over me. I would not serve in the armed forces of a government which had imposed a caste system upon me and many others for the crime of existence. I rejected the notion that because of the family I was born into that my destiny would be written by hands other than my own.
I severed the umbilical cord that connected me to the land of my birth, the old world, and with it set off – as many others had done before me, to the new world. To a place where I was proud to call myself a citizen. To a place where I could dream of a better life. To a place where all could meet as equals.